Nobel Chemist, Others Issue Strong Call
for National Nanotechnology Initiative

Congressional Support Developing for Doubling Nanotechnology R&D Funds

By Richard P. Terra

Foresight Briefing #5, originally published 1999


(June 1999) Testifying before both House and Senate committees in recent weeks, Nobel prize-winning chemist Richard E. Smalley of Rice University's Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology has called for congressional support of a National Nanotechnology Initiative that could double U.S. Federal funding for nano-scale research and development efforts over the next three years, to about $460 million. Smalley's support for the initiative before the Subcommittee on Basic Research of the House Science Committee was echoed by Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC, and by NSF and other federal research officials.

"The impact of nanotechnology on health, wealth, and lives of people will be at least the equivalent of the combined influences of microelectronics, medical imaging, computer-aided engineering, and man-made polymers developed in this century," Smalley said.

In some of the most important public discussions of nanotechnology so far this year, the panel of expert witnesses testified to the profound impact nanotechnology will have, and offered their thoughts on how federal research and developments efforts should be guided.

"Nanotechnology will replace our entire manufacturing base with a new, radically more precise, radically less expensive, and radically more flexible way of making products. . . . ," said Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC and a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. "The objective is a pervasive change in manufacturing—a change that will leave virtually no product untouched. Economic progress and military readiness for the 21st century will depend fundamentally on maintaining a competitive position in nanotechnology. . . . The first groups to develop assemblers will have a historic window for economic, military, and environmental impact."

Eugene Wong, Assistant Director of the Engineering Directorate at National Science Foundation, told the committee: "Recent discoveries at this scale are promising to revolutionize biology, electronics, materials, and all their applications. We're seeing inventions and discoveries that were unimaginable only a short time ago."

The Basic Research subcommittee hearing, titled "Nanotechnology: The State of Nano-Science and Its Prospects for the Next Decade," was held on June 22nd in response to a recommendation submitted on March 10th to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) by the Interagency Working Group on Nano Science, Engineering and Technology (IWGN) —consisting of representatives from the Departments of Commerce (DOC), Defense (DOD), Energy (DOE), and Transportation (DOT); the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Based on the results of an inter-agency workshop held by IWGN in January (see coverage in Foresight Update 36), the report recommends the establishment of a national initiative on nanotechnology as part of the Fiscal Year 2001 Budget. The multi-agency initiative, Nanotechnology for the 21st Century, Leading to a New Industrial Revolution (NTR), would greatly increase the federal funding of nanotechnology research and development. The report recommends doubling the current level of funding (currently about $230 million) over a three year period. The initiative would be similar in size to the IT2 initiative for information technology. The draft version of the IWGN recommendation is available on the Foresight web site.

(The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation also held a hearing, on "Emerging Technologies" on May 12th, at which Dr. Smalley also testified. He made essentially the same remarks that he presented to the House subcommittee in June. However, the House hearing was specifically focused on nanotechnology, while the Senate hearing covered a wider range of topics.)

"Nanotechnology holds great promise for breakthroughs in health, manufacturing, agriculture, energy use, and national security," said Congressman Nick Smith (R-Michigan), who chairs the subcommittee, in his opening remarks. "In fact, some researchers state that over the next few decades, nanotechnology will impact every aspect of our society. Unfortunately, while progress has been made, the United States does not dominate nanotechnology. A significant amount of research is underway in Europe and, especially, Japan. In that context, it seems to me that it's appropriate [to] keep abreast of the research being done in these other countries. It's also appropriate this Subcommittee take a good look at the Federal Government's role in funding nanotechnology research, to discuss what can be done to move this research from the lab to the marketplace, and to discuss where nanotechnology might be 10, 20, 30 years from now."


Potential for Wide-Ranging Impacts

Some of the most important comments made during the hearing concerned the wide-ranging impacts the development of nanotechnology is expected to have. The tone was set by committee member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas): "The word "revolutionary" is too overworked to have much impact anymore. But nanotechnology, which is the subject of today's hearing, truly is revolutionary." Johnson quoted a recent report from the National Research Council, which stated: "the ability to control and manipulate atoms, to observe and simulate collective phenomena, to treat complex materials systems, and to span length scales from atoms to our everyday experience, provides opportunities that were not even imagined a decade ago".

In his prepared remarks, Dr. Smalley said: "There is a growing sense in the scientific and technical community that we are about to enter a golden new era. We are about to be able to build things that work on the smallest possible length scales, atom by atom with the ultimate level of finesse. These little nanothings, and the technology that assembles and manipulates them — nanotechnology — will revolutionize our industries, and our lives. . . . [The] technology of our 20th century is fantastic, but it pales when compared to what will be possible when we learn to build things at the ultimate level of control, one atom at a time."

"Nanotechnology (or molecular nanotechnology to refer more specifically to the goals discussed here) will let us continue the historical trends in manufacturing right up to the fundamental limits imposed by physical law," Dr. Merkle told the committee. "It will let us make remarkably powerful molecular computers. It will let us make materials over fifty times lighter than steel or aluminum alloy but with the same strength. We'll be able to make jets, rockets, cars or even chairs that, by today's standards, would be remarkably light, strong, and inexpensive. Molecular surgical tools, guided by molecular computers and injected into the blood stream could find and destroy cancer cells or invading bacteria, unclog arteries, or provide oxygen when the circulation is impaired."

NSF's Eugene Wong also expects profound impacts: "Over the last twenty years, a series of instruments were invented that now allow us to see, manipulate, and control objects at nanoscale," Wong said in his prepared remarks. "They are the eyes, fingers and tweezers of the nanoscale world. With these tools, a new world of discovery and invention has been created. This is the world of nanoscale science and technology. . . . We are witnessing an explosion of revolutionary discoveries at nanoscale." As to the effects of the discoveries, Wong said, "The applications of nanoscale science and technology will lead to breakthroughs in information technology, advanced manufacturing, medicine and health, environment and energy, and national security." Wong also mentioned materials manufacturing, biotechnology and agriculture as areas where nanotechnology will have major impacts.

Dr. Smalley predicted basic research into nano-scale science and technology would have readily apparent, wide-scale benefits: "It's a wonderful aspect of nanotechnology that we haven't even mentioned so far today, that it's simultaneously deep, fundamental, true science—a true ivory tower solution—and yet commercially, in some cases immediately, financially interesting. . . . Pure scientists are dealing with problems and techniques that are pretty far from the commercial realm, with a few exceptions. In nanotechnology, they will get much more together. It will have the effect of revitalizing the American scientific establishment by getting the scientists, at the most fundamental levels, involved in projects of societal and commercial importance."


How Will Nanotechnology Be Used?

Committee members were keenly interested in the potential applications of nanotechnology. In his prepared remarks, Dr. Wong responded: "Why are nanoscale phenomena and techniques so important?

"First, the small size itself is of great potential benefit. The creation of modern information technology, for example, was made possible by systematically reducing the size of devices . . . Second, it is important to be able to control and alter nanoscale structures of materials. By so doing, one can often improve the properties of materials without changing their chemical composition. . . . Furthermore, high performance devices can be built that were not possible before. Third, much of molecular biology works at nanoscale. By using the techniques of nanoscale science in biology, we gain two great advantages, a deeper understanding of how nature works and ways to improve upon nature. . . . Nanoscale science and technology hold the promise of combining the best of both, working both top-down and bottom-up, in producing systems of unprecedented power and elegant simplicity."

Medical applications were strongly emphasized as one of the most important areas where nanotechnology will have a profound impact. "I think that as we see this technology mature, we will have a remarkable set of medical capabilities," said Dr. Merkle. "Disease and ill health are caused largely by damage at the molecular—at the cellular—level, and today's surgical tools are simply too big to deal with damage at that level. In the future we'll have tools that are molecular, both in their size and their precision; and they'll be able to intervene directly at the level where the damage occurs and correct it. That will have a remarkable impact on healthcare overall and will lead to a revolution in medicine."

"Nanotechnology is so intimately associated with molecular biology that its potential application in this area is all pervasive," Dr. Wong said in his prepared statement. "We have already mentioned better drug design and better drug and gene delivery. We have also discussed chip technology in biological and medical applications. Hybrid systems involving both living and artificial components such as synthetic tissues and organs for placement in cells are yet another possibility."

But it was Richard Smalley who offered some of the most dramatic testimony regarding the medical applications of nanotechnology. "Over the past century we have learned about the workings of these biological nanomachines to an incredible level of detail, and the benefits of this knowledge are beginning to be felt in medicine. In coming decades we will learn to modify and adapt this machinery to extend the quality and length of life. Biotechnology was the first nanotechnology, and it has a long way yet to go."

"Let me give you just one, personal, example: cancer. I sit before you today with very little hair on my head. It fell out a few weeks ago as a result of the chemotherapy I've been undergoing to treat a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma — the same sort that recently killed King Hussein of Jordan. While I am very optimistic, this chemotherapy is a very blunt tool. It consists of small molecules which are toxic — they kill cells in my body. Although they are meant to kill only the cancer cells, they kill hair cells too, and cause all sorts of other havoc . . . Twenty years ago, without even this crude chemotherapy I would already be dead. But twenty years from now, I am confident we will no longer have to use this blunt tool. By then nanotechnology will have given us specially engineered drugs which are nanoscale cancer-seeking missiles, a molecular technology that specifically targets just the mutant cancer cells in the human body, and leaves everything else blissfully alone. To do this these drug molecules will have to be big enough — thousands of atoms — so that we can code the information into them of where they should go and what they should kill. They will be examples of an exquisite, human-made nanotechnology of the future. I may not live to see it. But, with your help, I am confident it will happen. Cancer — at least the type that I have — will be a thing of the past."

Smalley also pointed to yet another area where nanotechnology will likely have a strong immediate impact: electronics. "Powerful as it will be, [the] bio-side of nanotechnology that works in the water-based world of living things will not be able to do everything. It cannot make things strong like steel or conduct electricity with the speed and efficiency of copper or silicon. For this, other nanotechnologies will be developed — what I call the "dry side" of nanotech. My own research these days is focused on carbon nanotubes — an outgrowth of the research that led to the Nobel Prize a few years ago. These nanotubes are incredible. . . . As individual nanoscale molecules, carbon nanotubes are unique. They have been shown to be true molecular wires, and have already been assembled into the first single molecule transistor ever built. Several decades from now we may see our current silicon-based microelectronics supplanted by a carbon-based nanoelectronics of vastly greater power and scope. It's amazing what one can do just by putting atoms where you want them to go."

Dr. Wong from the NSF concurred: "Electronics will be profoundly changed by nanotechnology in many ways."

Testimony also raised the prospect of solar energy generation. "Nanotechnology will also let us make inexpensive solar cells and batteries, giving us very low cost, clean, solar power," Ralph Merkle told the committee. "This should virtually eliminate the need for coal, oil, and nuclear fuel."

Picking up on Dr. Merkle's comments, Dr. Smalley said, "It would be very nice to have an alternative to fossil fuels—an alternative to nuclear fission—that would be capable of providing energy for what will probably be 10-15 billion people in the middle of this next century. I believe that if this alternative exists, it has to be solar. . . . Where is that solar technology going to come from? [It will come] not just from improving solar cells, but from something totally new. . . . When you think about the physics that controls that, you're rapidly led to the conclusion that the physics which makes this possible happen within a little, 1 nm cubic box. . . . I don't know what that solar technology is going to be," Smalley concluded, "but I'll bet you that it's nanotechnology."


Directions for Funding and Research

Despite all the testimony concerning the potential application of nanotechnology, the House hearing had a much more short-term objective: to help determine how strongly the federal government should fund research and development efforts, and what direction those efforts should take.

In his opening remarks, subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith said, "The [Basic Research] Subcommittee met to discuss funding role of the Federal Government in supporting nanoscience research and to discuss the economic implications of the scientific advances made in the field of nanotechnology. In Fiscal Year 1999, the US Government will spend approximately $230 million on nanotechnology research; 80% of the funding comes from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy. The remaining money comes from the National Institute of Health, the Department of Commerce, and NASA. In addition, the private sector has shown interest in the field of nanotechnology, and the question that this Subcommittee and we hope to answer is 'How much effort should the Federal Government be putting into taxpayer-funded research in this area?' "

The panel of witnesses were unanimous in their support for a role for government funding. In his prepared remarks, for instance, Ralph Merkle said: "Developing nanotechnology will be a major project, just as developing nuclear weapons or lunar rockets were major projects. We must first focus our efforts on developing two things: the tools with which to build the first molecular machines and the blueprints of what we are to build. This will require the cooperative efforts of researchers across a wide range of disciplines: scanning probe microscopy, supramolecular chemistry, protein engineering, self-assembly, robotics, materials science, computational chemistry, self-replicating systems, physics, computer science, and more. This work must focus on fundamentally new approaches and methods. Incremental revolutionary improvements will not be sufficient. Government funding is both appropriate and essential for several reasons: the benefits will be pervasive across companies and the economy; few if any companies will have the resources to pursue this alone; and development will take many years to a few decades (beyond the planning horizon of most private organizations)."

Merkle also noted in his remarks that there is still considerable disagreement on how best to direct efforts to conduct nano-scale research and development efforts: "For centuries, manufacturing methods have gotten more precise, less expensive, and more flexible. In the next few decades, we will approach the limits of these trends. . . . . Most scientists agree that we will approach these limits but differ on how we should proceed, on what nanotechnology will look like, and on how long it will take to develop. Much of this disagreement is caused by the fact that, collectively, we have only recently agreed that the goal is feasible, and we have not yet sorted out the issues that this creates. This process of creating a greater, shared understanding of both the goals of nanotechnology and the routes for achieving those goals is the most important result of today's research."

Not surprisingly, Eugene Wong advocated a continuing strong role for the NSF: "Nanoscale science and technology were born of basic research, much of it funded through federal support. . . . The current NSF funding is this area is approximately $90 million a year and the total funding among all agencies for FY'99 is estimated to be $240 million," Wong said in his prepared remarks. "Through its role in funding research," he continued, "NSF will also achieve two additional major objectives. First, the funding will catalyze private spending from industry. Second, because nearly all of NSF's funding goes to universities and because of NSF's emphasis on the integration of education with research, education in this area will benefit. Indeed, without the NSF role, it is unlikely that the trained manpower needed for this field will be available."

Exactly what types of research would be supported, and how funding would be allocated, has yet to be worked out. However, the initial outlines of the new initiative were presented in the March IWGN report. According to Dr. Wong, the following areas of investigation were identified during the January workshop convened by the IWGN, which led to the recommendation of the NTR initiative:

Dr. Wong was also questioned about NSF's ability to coordinate the sort of multi-agency, multi-disciplinary effort being recommended for the NTR, and advocated by the panelists in their testimony. "The NSF has been the coordinator of major inter-agency effort for the last few years," Wong answered. "There's a very active group going on right now [IWGN], chaired by NSF. We're prepared to play that role. We have a long history, and we're absolutely determined and devoted to this as a major strategic direction. Since we are the primary funder of basic sciences, and long lead time projects, I think we are probably positioned to do it."

When asked their opinions on where the federal government might best devote its funding, the panelists gave a variety of answers. However, one point worth noting is that both Merkle and Smalley emphasized the importance of computational modeling to the overall success of any effort to develop advanced nanotechnology.

"I think the focus would be directed towards research which would improve our ability to manipulate molecular structure," Merkle said. "I would include scanning probe microscopy and self-assembly on the experimental end. On the theoretical end, I would focus very clearly on 'What does a molecular manufacturing system look like?' We've been talking about what will we see in 20 or 30 years or some time in the next century. What will these remarkable advances look like? We have computational capabilities today that will allow us to model proposed molecular machines, and we could have very strong theoretical programs aimed at describing what this future will look like. We will have a better understanding of what it is and how best to achieve it."

Dr. Smalley echoed that thinking. One of the committee members pointed out that the President's proposed Information Technology Initiative ("IT2") includes the acquisition of a computing system for addressing challenging scientific computing problems. Smalley was asked what would be the impact of that level of computational power on nanotechnology research?

"It's vast," Smalley replied. "The key aspect of nanotechnology is that you're now dealing with the ultimate, fundamental level. You know where all the atoms are. That instantly makes it a fundamental science. So if you know where all the atoms are, you can ask how does it behave, and it becomes a calculable problem. Not calculable with the computers of a couple decades ago, but interestingly calculable now with these new incredible computers . . ."

Committee members also questioned the panelists about the U.S. position in the world research community with regard to the development of nanotechnology, and whether it would be best to have open, cooperative programs with other nations, or closed, restricted ones.

When asked by Chairman Nick Smith, "Do we have the proper effort to observe and keep abreast of what is happening in other countries?", Dr. Smalley replied: "As an active researcher in the field, one thing we do most of the time is worry about what other people are doing, and so there is a tremendous amount of scrutiny—and for that matter, collaboration—with European and Japanese laboratories. So that aspect I think is well in hand."

Another committee member asked how can we [the U.S.] do a better job of being a partner, to which Dr. Wong answered: "I think we've really evolved a system of international competition—yet cooperation at the same time—that is extremely healthy. At the basic science research level, there is open publication, open exchange . . . [But] There are at least two areas where we should be very careful: one is where national security issues are involved, clearly we must be careful. Second is when intellectual property are involved, when the researching ground has moved sufficiently downstream to have property rights."

Smalley, in particular, seemed strongly in favor of open, collaborative efforts. "Nanotechnology is intrinsically small science," he said at one point, "so it is impossible to dominate the field by a huge program in national laboratories with major facilities, because it's a place where many small laboratories are active—hundreds around the world. It's particularly possible for countries—that are not as well funded as the United States—to be major players in this area. It is the small science initiative that needs to be treated as the big science and technology, big impact area."

Smalley also warned that overly-restrictive programs might actually be counterproductive. "It's much easier to render the entire process sterile by trying to be too careful than it is to both succeed in developing an area and to make sure that you've kept it all to yourself. If you spend all your time trying to make sure that no one else gets a good idea, you shut down your own intellectual activity," he said.

"In this area of nanotechnology," Smalley concluded, "it's tempting—in fact, even almost impossible to avoid—talking about revolutionary advances which will have huge economic impact and national security implications. It's quite easy to get yourself into the conversation saying, 'If it's that important, let's put it all behind a fence, do it all ourselves, and never talk to anyone about it.' That would be a prescription for sterility."

Another important issue raised by the committee was when — and how strongly — the private sector would become involved in the development of nanotechnology. In his prepared remarks, Dr. Wong of the NSF stated: "Despite its great commercial promise, the field of nanoscale science and technology cannot advance without federal support and cannot fulfill its promise in a timely way without a substantial increase in federal funding. This is so because so much of the work that is needed is fundamental research. Furthermore, even the work with targeted applications has a long lead-time. In the current competitive climate private sector investment will fall far short of what is needed and a strong federal role will be necessary for the field to advance, and to advance in a timely way."

Paul McWhorter, the Deputy Director of the Microsystems Science, Technology and Components Center at Sandia National Laboratories, expressed a similar line of thinking. "I think the private sector will invest, will even invest a large amount, but the issue of the private sector is risk," McWhorter said. "The key aspect of what the investment will be is when will they see what the application is, and when will they see the risk being mitigated? I think a program—like the NSF program being described—one of the key roles that it shows the direction and mitigates the risk so that you can free up and realize the private sector investment."


Support for NTR Initiative

The panel of witnesses were unanimous in their support for the IWGN proposal for the NTR national nanotechnology initiative to be included in the U.S. federal budget for FY 2001.

As Eugene Wong of the NSF told the committee, "Nanoscale science and technology represent a major opportunity for the nation. It is a strategic area for NSF and we seek your encouragement and support."

In the IWGN report, a national initiative, Nanotechnology for the Twenty-First Century: Leading to a New Industrial Revolution (NTR), is recommended as part of the fiscal year 2001 budget. The initiative will support long-term nanotechnology research and development, which will lead to breakthroughs in information technology, advanced manufacturing, medicine and health, environment and energy, and national security. The proposed level of additional annual funding doubles (by $260M) the current level of effort, incrementally increased over three years. This initiative will focus on fundamental research on novel phenomena, processes and tools; synthesis and processing by design; nanostructured devices, materials and systems that are high-risk, broadly-enabling and are designed to have major impact; as well as on education and training of future nanotechnology workers and rapid knowledge and technology transfer.

In his prepared remarks, Richard Smalley said: "Recently the Interagency Working Group on Nano Science, Engineering and Technology (IWGN) has studied the field of nanotechnology in detail, and made its recommendation to Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on March 10, 1999 for a new national initiative in this critical emerging area . . . Mr. Chairman, Honorable Congressmen, I believe it is in our Nation's best interest to move boldly into this new field."

During the questioning of the panel, Smalley was even more forceful. "I believe at the moment our weakness is the failure so far to identify nanotechnology for what it is: a tremendously promising new future which needs to have a flag," he said. "Somebody needs to go out, put a flag in the ground, and say: 'Nanotechnology: This is where we're going to go.' We should have a serious national initiative in this area."

In his prepared remarks, Ralph Merkle put it very succinctly: "We know it's possible. We know it's valuable. We should do it."

The message of support seems to have made a strong impression on the members of the committee. In his concluding remarks, Chairman Nick Smith said, "I think that all of us who have heard your testimony today—and those who will read your testimony in the transcript—are going to be the flag-bearers, because it seems obvious that there is enough information, enough justification, to aggressively pursue additional research in this area. It might not culminate in what we would hope it would, but it seems obvious the justification is there, and it's a worthwhile pursuit. We will aggressively pursue that as we proceed with our new appropriations."

Richard P. Terra is a Senior Associate of The Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. He is also Editor of the quarterly Foresight Update newsletter.


Additional Resources:

Prepared Statements for House Science Committee, Subcommittee on Basic Research, June 22nd, 1999:

Selected excerpts from prepared statements and from the questioning of the panelists are available.

Foresight Senior Associate Richard Smith has posted his summary of the House subcommittee hearing.

Statement by Richard Smalley (in Adobe Acrobat format) before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, May 12th, 1999 is available on the U.S. Senate web site.

Ralph Merkle has posted an annotated version of his prepared remarks before the House subcommittee.

Some press accounts of the House hearing, and the proposed NTR initiative: