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Nanotechnology Innovation Summit Overviews Successes of the First Decade of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Emphasizes Challenges Remaining

Written by: 
Vincent Caprio

The Nanotechnology Innovation Summit held December 8-10, 2010 in Washington, D.C. provided a broad view of the emergence, growth, and success of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) marking the 10th anniversary of the interagency Federal initiative. The event was preceded by a preliminary workshop held on Wednesday December 8, 2010 where attendees heard directly from program managers at numerous funding agencies who described their research priorities in the context of the NNI Strategic Plan. 

A draft of the updated strategic plan was posted on for public comment throughout November 2010. As that plan calls for increased emphasis on goal-oriented research driven by national priorities, technology transfer, and support for commercialization activities, it was appropriate that "innovation" served as the theme for the anniversary workshop.

Moderators for the event included high-ranking members from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), with the opening keynote panel on Thursday December 9 featuring Presidential Science Advisors from the last three administrations each providing their own perspectives on the origins of the NNI and its course thus far. The panel expressed optimism about the future of the initiative and further provided their conviction that nanoscale science and engineering is a key field for the future, but further noted that we are headed for some tough budget years. Nevertheless the NNI's budget growth from $495M in 2001 to an estimated $1.6B in 2011 has been remarkable. The panel noted that the planners of the NNI had paid attention to health, safety, and environmental issues from the very beginning, but that this has not been enough to satisfy the critics. Panelists advocated for continued attention to the EHS issue and international competitiveness, and noted the difficulty of training skilled researchers and workers in a highly interdisciplinary field. One panel member, John Holdren expressed strong appreciation for his predecessor's work in putting the NNI on solid footings, and listed five points that summarize the Obama Administration's emphasis for the Initiative:

  1. The NNI should continue to be a high priority for R&D agencies, as reflected in the annual Budget Memo he co-authors with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, since nanotechnology is expected to play a vital role in economic growth and job creation.
  2. Agencies should continue to support nanoscale science, engineering, and technology broadly but should increase activities supporting the NNI Signature Initiatives (to date, Nanotechnology for Solar Energy Collection and Conversion; Sustainable Nanomanufacturing - Creating the Industries of the Future; and Nanoelectronics for 2020 and Beyond, with
  3. the identification of new Signature Initiatives and establishment of supporting public-private partnerships called for in the draft Strategic Plan).
  4. Nanotechnology research should support existing grand challenges in the research community, for example in sustainable energy or cancer therapeutics.
  5. The emphasis on responsible development, as reflected by the growing funding for EHS research, will continue.
  6. Concrete recommendations from PCAST for greater emphasis on innovation should be heeded through increased use of public-private partnerships and stronger, more effective technology transfer and commercialization efforts.

The event proceeded following a break to explore the accompanying Innovation Showcase with leading figures from the business world discussing national and global issues driving the need for nanotechnology innovation. Of critical importance, Norm Augustine, former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, noted that the "Gathering Storm" of international competitors identified in 2007 by a committee he chaired for the National Academies has not dissipated. He noted that a recent update to that report suggests we are losing ground, and that we continue to have a lot of good innovators in the United States, but fears that we are benefiting from our prior investments in educating scientists and engineers while falling behind in new investments. He urged us all to pay attention to how Congress treats the COMPETES Act in the next few years. In closing he quoted Winston Churchill: "You can always depend on Americans to do the right thing. After they've done everything else."

Additional areas of the event further addressed the priorities for individual federal agencies, including addresses by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu; Leo Christodoulou, Director of the Defense Sciences Office of DARPA; Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Patrick Gallagher, Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and Dr. Subra Suresh, Director of the National Science Foundation. The Congressional point of view was presented by Bart Gordon, soon to retire as Representative from Tennessee and Chair of the House Science Committee, in Friday's keynote address in which he emphasized growth in key investments in educational programs. The event further included addresses and presentations by companies, industry, and investors involved in nanotechnology and further impacted by the NNI. Both large and small corporations presented success stories on nanotechnology initiatives in which the NNI has contributed a strategic investment augmenting private investments. In these presentations the benefits and impact of public-private partnerships were emphasized, providing the critical evidence of the potential economic impact facilitated by this initiative. Throughout the event various presentations returned to this aspect of the NNI investments citing the 2010 report by the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), as well as Nano2, the report by a recent series of international assessment studies and workshops, having increased emphasis on technology transfer and commercialization, education, environmental health and safety, and societal impact. Thus while the event reaffirmed the success of the NNI investment by the federal Government over the past decade, it further provided some critical insight into key areas that must be strengthened in order for the U.S. to retain its global leadership in nanotechnology over the next decade.

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