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Foresight Update 50

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


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Calls in U.S. Senate to Increase Nanotechnology Funding and Coordination

Similar Bills Introduced in House

Advocates of increased Federal support for nanotechnology R&D have seen cause for cheering as a strong funding bill passed the U. S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation and headed toward consideration by the full Senate, while a similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. Predicting the fate of these initiatives is made more difficult by the change in Senate majority control brought about by November's midterm elections, but the bipartisan nature of the support expressed for nanotechnology R&D encourages optimism. The bills under consideration are noteworthy not only because they recognize the importance of nanotechnology to the economic health and security of the United States and call for increased funding and an increased role of the U.S. government in developing the technology, but because they echo Foresight's long-standing position that society needs to prepare wise policies to deal with the social, legal, security, and ethical issues that will be raised by the emergence of nanotechnology.

Currently the National Nanotechnology Initiative is organized under the White House's National Science and Technology Council, so in effect exists at the whim of the President. The bills being considered in Congress would formalize the arrangement and give the NNI more influence and security than it currently has.

Last September, Sen. Ron Wyden (D - Ore.), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, introduced a bill, titled the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, to promote the development of nanotechnology by increasing government spending on early-stage research. Spending sought by the bill was variously reported as about $433 million to about $446 million, with some of that money to come from existing funds located elsewhere in the federal budget. The proposal equals President Bush's request for nanotech funding for the 2003 fiscal year and increases it by 15 percent for the next year.

Part of the rationale for the bill is concern that the U.S. is in a race with the rest of the world to develop nanotechnology, and other countries are matching America's investment. Because of major programs by European Union nations, Japan, China, Taiwan, and other East Asia nations, U.S. spending on nanotechnology is estimated to be only about 25% of the world's total. Stanley Williams, a fellow and director of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s quantum science research and a Foresight Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology winner for the year 2000 in the Experimental category (see Update 43), is quoted as saying "It's a dogfight — the rest of the world simply is not going to allow us to outspend them."

Wyden's press secretary was quoted as saying, "Sen. Wyden feels that missing the nanotechnology revolution would be somewhat akin to missing the computer revolution. This is a field with almost unlimited potential, and America needs to stay at the forefront of this field. Sen. Wyden wants to make sure there's ample financial investment and ample organizational investment."

In addition to increasing funding, the bill would coordinate federal nanotechnology research efforts and balance research objectives with ethical and societal concerns. A new Center for Societal, Ethical, Educational, Legal and Workforce Issues Related to Nanotechnology would be established to study the potential long-term effects of nanotechnology.

In opening the first Senate Nanotechnology Hearing on Sept. 17, 2002, Wyden stated the challenge, the three steps he thinks need to be taken, and why he considers a Federal role essential:

"My own judgment is that the nanotechnology revolution has the potential to change America on a scale equal to, if not greater than, the computer revolution. As Chair of this Subcomittee, I am determined that the United States will not miss, but will mine the opportunities of nanotechnology. ...

"First, a National Nanotechnology Research Program should be established to superintend long-term fundamental nanoscience and engineering research. The program's goals will be to ensure America's leadership and economic competitiveness in nanotechnology, and to make sure ethical and social concerns are taken into account alongside the development of this discipline.

"Second, the Federal government should support nanoscience through a program of research grants, and also through the establishment of nanotechnology research centers. These centers would serve as key components of a national research infrastructure, bringing together experts from the various disciplines that must intersect for nanoscale projects to succeed. As these research efforts take shape, educational opportunities will be the key to their long-term success. ...

"Third, the government should create connections across its agencies to aid in the meshing of various nanotechnology efforts. These could include a national steering office, and a Presidential Nanotechnology Advisory Committee, modeled on the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee. ...

"If the Federal government fails to get behind nanotechnology now with organized, goal-oriented support, this nation runs the risk of falling behind others in the world who recognize the potential of this discipline."

A couple days after the hearing, The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously passed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which would create the National Nanotechnology Research Program. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn. and the 2000 Democratic candidate for Vice President), a co-sponsor (with Sen. George Allen, R-Va.) of the bill, was quoted as saying "The unanimous support of the Senate Commerce Committee is a very big step forward for this very small technology," and he vowed to push for full Senate passage before the end of the year. "Nowhere in the world are the wheels of innovation spinning more rapidly than in the realm of nanotechnology," said Lieberman. According to Lieberman, the bill closely tracks the recommendations of the National Research Council (NRC), which completed a thorough review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in June (see Update 49).

In an interview with Sen. Wyden published by UPI a few days after his 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act passed Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approval, Wyden tackles the challenge of convincing a public unfamiliar with nanoscale science and technology that nanotechnology is worth funding.

"If we show people practical applications, how it can revolutionize their lives, that's the best way to deal with it. ... A big part of what we have to do is use this committee as sort of a bully pulpit to walk through technology questions, show the practical applications and relate them to the goals that often sound strange at the beginning, but could become part of people's daily conversation before too long."

Wyden is predictably interested in the potential of nanotechnology to provide good jobs for many people, but more unexpected is his insightful comment that "Certainly health care has a lot of potential applications, but there isn't a scientific field that can't be shown to be ripe for revolutionary changes in the way it operates (with nanotech). This is about a fundamental restructuring of a set of technologies with near-limitless potential."

Likewise, Wyden has a clear idea why government investment is important. "Let's take the two [applications] we've been talking about, electronics and health. Startup investments are going to be key, and venture capital is hard to get right now in a slippery economy. Some modest investments in the startup end can pay big dividends down the road."

In the interview Wyden also touches on the potential of nanotechnology to involve young people in science and the importance of supporting science education, on the central role of interdisciplinary research in nanotechnology development, on the need to improve company-university relationships, and the need for better coordination among the six or seven Federal agencies involved in nanotechnology.


 
    "My own judgment is that the nanotechnology revolution has the potential to change America on a scale equal to, if not greater than, the computer revolution. As Chair of this Subcomittee, I am determined that the United States will not miss, but will mine the opportunities of nanotechnology."    
    — Sen. Wyden (D-Ore.)    
 

Commenting on the bill, F. Mark Modzelewski, Executive Director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, labeled the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act "the most important piece of nanotechnology legislation to date." In describing the bill, Modzelewski points out:

"The bill also provides $5 million per year for a new Center for Ethical, Societal, Educational, Legal and Workforce Issues Related to Nanotechnology, which will be required to track and research the societal, ethical, educational, legal and workforce issues related to nanotechnology. In addition, The Bill requires the President to establish a National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel to advise the President and Congress on matters relating to the National Nanotechnology Program. Additionally, the National Science and Technology Council will oversee the planning, management and coordination of the Federal nanotechnology research and development program. The legislation authorizes $476 million in fiscal year 2003 and $547 million in fiscal year 2004 to carry out this program."

Foresight Senior Associate Richard H. Smith, II (see Update 42 Foresight Profile: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"), currently with Alternative Futures Associates (see "Forum on Nanotechnology Strategy")

"I think the National Nanotechnology Initiative, under the leadership of Rita Colwell and Mike Roco at the National Science Foundation, has jump-started nanotechnology R&D in the United States. The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act that has just passed its first hurdle in the Senate should go a long way to institutionalize our national commitment to nanotechnology. Along with the recently published National Research Council report, the unanimous support of the Senate Commerce Committee will help dispel some of the anti-nanotech lobbying that has already begun and will probably accelerate with the publication of Michael Crichton's new bestseller, Prey. I particularly hope the bill's emphasis on developing better relationships with industry and on paying more attention to social, ethical, and legal implications won't be watered down. These may be the two areas where we have done less than we could have and ought to develop more fully."

 
    "It will take many years of sustained federal investment for the nanotechnology industry to achieve maturity, and it is critical that the President has structures in place to ensure that the U.S. leads the world in its development. ... Additionally, nanotechnology will give rise to a host of novel social, ethical, philosophical and legal issues. It will be important to have a group in place to predict and work to alleviate anticipated problems."    
    — Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.)    
 

Legislation similar in intent to the Senate bill has also been introduced into the House of Representatives. The Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Advisory Board Act (H.R. 5669), introduced by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), would establish an independent advisory board comprised of leaders from industry and academia to advise the President and Congress on research investment strategy, policy, objectives and oversight related to the government's National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Honda is quoted as saying:

"It will take many years of sustained federal investment for the nanotechnology industry to achieve maturity, and it is critical that the President has structures in place to ensure that the U.S. leads the world in its development. The federal government's nanotechnology strategy must have clear goals and metrics to assess our country's progress. Additionally, nanotechnology will give rise to a host of novel social, ethical, philosophical and legal issues. It will be important to have a group in place to predict and work to alleviate anticipated problems."

Honda's bill was referred to the House Science Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, (R-NY), is reported to be himself "committed" to introducing another nanotechnology bill, one that is comparable to Wyden's Senate bill. Meyya Meyyappan, director of the Center for Nanotechnology at the NASA Ames Research Center, is quoted as saying:

"I think Honda's bill will pass, because when all is said and done, the House committees may discuss hundreds of things, and disagree on many, but this country's economic base is built upon technology and has been for hundreds of years. How can anyone argue about that?"

Realization is now widespread that nanotechnology development is well underway, that it will form the basis of a new industrial revolution, that it and other emerging and converging technologies will fundamentally transform human society, possibly bringing a 'golden age' in human history (see Update 49), and that the U.S. government should take a strong role in developing the technology and in addressing the issues that will emerge with the technology. Stay tuned for the next steps as these bills wind their ways through Congress, and as the larger story of developing and preparing for nanotechnology unfolds.

Sources:


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Foresight Update 50 - Table of Contents

 

$50,000 Challenge Grant deadline January 31

New donations to be doubled

Dear Member of the Foresight Community,

Suddenly nanotechnology is getting continual attention—in the news, popular fiction, business meetings, and general conversation. It's seen as the "next big thing" and is expected to both create great new wealth and solve longstanding societal problems.

Foresight members deserve the credit for getting these concepts so widely accepted. For fifteen years we've hammered away at communicating three main ideas: (1) molecular nanotechnology is coming and it's powerful, (2) it will have huge benefits, and (3) it could be misused. All of these are now firmly entrenched and show up everywhere, from government reports to popular media.

Foresight is committed to maintaining its role as a thought leader, providing education on the responsible development of nanotechnology. We need your ongoing support, both social and financial, to continue our work advancing the Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology.

Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology

You may have seen that safety concerns are already being raised about nanomaterials. As molecular manufacturing draws closer, these concerns will be directed to potential accidents from this new area. And it's true: the future capabilities of molecular nanotechnology do indeed raise an unprecedented set of military, security, and environmental issues. To prepare for this, Foresight has drafted a set of safe development rules—the Foresight Guidelines—to enable researchers and companies to avoid risky development pathways.


 
    "The nanotechnology buzz has turned into a flood of hype in the last year,"    
    — San Jose Mercury News, 2002    
 

We are launching an extensive educational outreach campaign to focus on the societal benefits of nanotechnology, acceptance of the Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology, and the responsible management of patents and commercial applications of nanotechnology. Never before has so much careful thought and action gone into preparing for a new technology before its arrival.

A challenge to us all: deadline January 31

Public awareness is good, and—with care—accidents look avoidable. Now we face the remaining tough goals:

  • Extend the Guidelines to include the very difficult task of avoiding deliberate abuse of nanotechnology, and
  • Establish a well-funded, targeted engineering project (public or private) to develop full molecular manufacturing.

Thanks to two generous Senior Associates who prefer to remain anonymous, Foresight Institute has a $50,000 Challenge Grant running through January 2003. This means that every new dollar you donate up to this total will be doubled.

We know that the economy is tight and portfolios are not as lush as they were a couple of years ago, but now is the time for your support to have the greatest impact. Every month we move molecular manufacturing forward saves both lives and habitat.

Please consider making a one-time donation, or renewing/upgrading your membership, by January 31 to qualify for doubling of your donation. You'll be making a huge difference to Foresight as we work for the safe and rapid development of molecular manufacturing.

Sincerely,

Christine Peterson, President


 
    "We live in a century of the incredible"    
    — K. Eric Drexler    
 

The Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology are available on the web at: http://www.foresight.org/guidelines/

For the latest news on the Challenge Grant, and to donate, go to http://www.foresight.org/


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From Foresight Update 50, originally published 30 November 2002.


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