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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies > Gearing Up for the Reauthorization of the Nanotechnology R&D Act

David Rejeski
Director
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Abstract:
Last month, I was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation's Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Innovation on the reauthorization of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. A big part of this act deals with the reauthorization of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which was established in fiscal year 2001. Over the past seven years, the nanotechnology industry has grown at a rapid pace. Our Project has found that new nanotechnology consumer products are entering the market at the rate of three to four per week. The reauthorization of the Nanotechnology R&D Act provides us with a key opportunity to rethink our strategy when it comes to our investment in nanotechnology R&D, ensuring that the United States remains a world leader in nanotechnology, and also ensuring that nanotechnology is developed in a responsible way. We recently analyzed purported nanotechnology risk-relevant research published by the NNI and found that only $13 million, or about 1 percent, of the total $1.4 billion federal investment in nanotechnology R&D in 2006 went towards highly relevant EHS research. More funding for EHS research, tied to strategic priorities, is the first step towards ensuring that the risks of nanotechnology are understood and managed to avoid unnecessary harm to workers, consumers, and the environment.

May 16th, 2008

Gearing Up for the Reauthorization of the Nanotechnology R&D Act

Last month, the Project's Chief Science Advisor Dr. Andrew Maynard and I were each invited to testify before Congress on the reauthorization of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act - I before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation's Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Innovation, and Dr. Maynard before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology.

A big part of this act deals with the reauthorization of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which was established in fiscal year 2001. The NNI is tasked with coordinating the federal investment in nanotechnology research and development (R&D). According to a recent press release, the NNI's latest strategic plan, created with consensus from 25 government agencies, will "ensure that the United States derives growing economic benefits and improved quality of life for its citizens and remains a global leader in nanotechnology R&D in the years to come" (1).

Over the past seven years, the nanotechnology industry has grown at a rapid pace. Our Project has found that new nanotechnology consumer products are entering the market at the rate of three to four per week, based on the latest update to our Consumer Products Inventory (2). These products come from 321 companies in 20 countries and contain "everything from nanotech diamonds and cooking oil, to golf clubs and iPhones" (3).

While companies in the United States currently have the largest number of nano-enabled consumer products on the market, according to our analysis, this is by no means guaranteed to remain the same in the future. At the Senate hearing, Matthew Nordan, president of Lux Research, testified that "[n]anotech's discovery phase has given way to commercialization - tens of billions of dollars worth of products now incorporate nanotech - and other nations are eroding the U.S.'s dominant position" (4).

This same concern was reflected by Sean Murdock, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, at the House hearing. "America faces intense global competition in every field. But nowhere is this competition more intense than in the field of nanotechnology," he said. "Russia has announced a $7 billion nanotechnology initiative that will spend nearly $750 million more on nanotechnology research every year than the United States will. China already is on par with the United States, when purchasing power is taken into account" (5).

The reauthorization of the Nanotechnology R&D Act provides us with a key opportunity to rethink our strategy when it comes to our investment in nanotechnology R&D, ensuring that the United States remains a world leader in nanotechnology, and also ensuring that nanotechnology is developed in a responsible way. Our investment in nanotechnology R&D can be compromised by a lack of adequate investment in understanding and addressing the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks of nanotechnology.

We recently analyzed purported nanotechnology risk-relevant research published by the NNI and found that only $13 million, or about 1 percent, of the total $1.4 billion federal investment in nanotechnology R&D in 2006 went towards highly relevant EHS research (6). This figure is significantly lower than the NNI's estimate of $37.7 million. Even the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that "[a]bout 20 percent of the over $37 million in fiscal year 2006 research expenditures that the NNI reported as being primarily focused on the EHS risks of nanotechnology cannot actually be attributed to this purpose" (7). Perhaps an equally distressing finding was that, over the same time period, European countries invested nearly $24 million in projects with the primary aim of addressing nanotechnology risks - almost twice the United States' investment. More funding for EHS research, tied to strategic priorities, is the first step towards ensuring that the risks of nanotechnology are understood and managed to avoid unnecessary harm to workers, consumers, and the environment.

The recommendations I presented at the Senate hearing addressed a lack of transparency in the NNI data, as well as the lack of a comprehensive strategy and public engagement plan. I'll summarize those recommendations here:

1. Transparency: The NNI reauthorization bill must make the NNI fully transparent and accountable in terms of its investments to address the risks of nanotechnologies. Public confidence in nanotechnology can't be built on hidden agendas or exaggerated numbers. A separate external advisory board should be established to provide guidance and oversight for the NNI.

2. Strategy: We need a comprehensive strategy to address existing and emerging nanotechnology risks, which has the following:

- Government-wide priorities tied directly to funding levels, which ensure the right agencies are focused on the right risks at the right time in the research and development and commercialization cycle;
- A 10 percent minimum funding level for nano-related EHS research;
- Order of magnitude funding increases for EHS research at our key regulatory agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Consumer Product Safety Commission;
- Provisions to support public-private partnerships and greater international collaboration; and
- Funding and a strategy to support green nanotechnology.

3. Engagement: Public awareness of nanotechnology is stuck at a low level according to our surveys. The federal government has no strategy to engage the public and fill the knowledge gap about nanotechnology, which could have serious implications for nanotechnology's long-term success. This must be remedied.

REFERENCES
(1) See "National Nanotechnology Initiative Releases New Strategic Plan," released 2 January 2008. Available at: http://www.nano.gov/html/news/releases/20080102_NNI_Releases_New_Strategic_Plan.html
(2) See: "New Nanotech Products Hitting the Market at the Rate of 3-4 Per Week," released 24 April 2008. Available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/news/archive/6697/
(3) Ibid.
(4) See testimony of Matthew M. Nordan, "Change Required for the National Nanotechnology
Initiative as Commercialization Eclipses Discovery," 24 April 2008. Available at: http://commerce.senate.gov/public/_files/LuxResearchSenateCommerceCommitteetestimony4242008.pdf
(5) See testimony of Sean Murdock, 16 April 2008. Available at: http://democrats.science.house.gov/Media/File/Commdocs/hearings/2008/Full/16apr/Murdock_Testimony.pdf
(6) See "Europe Spends Nearly Twice as Much as U.S. on Nanotech Risk Research," released 24 April 2008. Available at: http://www.nanotechproject.org/news/archive/ehs-update/
(7) See testimony of Robert A. Robinson, "NANOTECHNOLOGY: Accuracy of Data on Federally Funded Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Could Be Improved," 24 April 2008. Available at: http://commerce.senate.gov/public/_files/RobinsonTestimony.pdf

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