Congressman from Silicon Valley promotes nanotechnology

U.S. Rep. Michael Honda, D-San Jose, winner of the 2005 Foresight Institute Government Prize, wrote an opinion piece for the Mercury News in which he argued “Nanotech deserves public and private sector support“:

Nanotechnology’s benefits to society may not be obvious. The concept can be convoluted and controversial. Yet it is a powerful, enabling technology, like the Internet, the internal combustion engine and electricity. It fosters new potential in almost every conceivable technological discipline, and its societal impact will be broad and often unanticipated.

Like any new invention, the potential for good is as great as the potential for harm. Excitement in the technology industry is matched by a parallel concern regarding nanotech’s potentially adverse impacts. This argues for public engagement in private sector nanotech development, which involves the control of matter on a molecular scale. If we shy away from the debate, we lose the ability to shape it.

For these reasons, I recently introduced a bill in Congress called the Nanotechnology Advancement and New Opportunities (NANO) Act (HR 820) and supported a nanotech bill (HR 554) by House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn. My bill makes use of California nanotechnology experts’ recommendations from my 2005 Blue Ribbon Task Force on Nanotechnology. But before explaining my bill, it’s worth mentioning the benefits of nanotechnology and its surprising possibilities.

Transportation is one example. Nanotechnology helps automakers build batteries for new zero-emissions electric vehicles that charge in less than 10 minutes and allow travel of 130 miles between charges. Efficiency like this moves us closer to our goal of reduced emissions and a cooler planet.

Food safety is another area of potential. Nanotechnology enables health professionals to develop swabs for detecting E. coli and avian influenza. Such early warning systems have enormous implications for the developing world, which continues to struggle with rising disease and pandemics.

Nanotech can improve health care. In preventive medicine, contact lenses can be created with color-shifting sensors that check diabetic blood-sugar levels. Similarly, an electrically conductive grid of nanofibers in clothing can monitor the heart and vital signs, detecting problems early for immediate treatment. There is the potential to use nanotechnology for detecting cancer and heart disease, developing cures for cystic fibrosis and designing implants such as artificial hips and kidneys.

For the environment, the technology can increase efficiency in lighting and heating, electrical storage capacity, and energy sources such as solar and wind power, decreasing pollutants.

We know just a fraction of what innovations are possible — and what precautions need to be taken to ensure health and environmental safety in use of nanotechnology. That is why we need a research strategy that establishes priorities for the federal government and industry. Only through aggressive public-private partnership can we construct guidelines for responsible stewardship. We need to work together to solve problems and alleviate concerns.

My bill would establish a Nanomanufacturing Investment Partnership fund with at least $400 million in public-private dollars for research and development. It also works with the Department of Energy to increase nanotechnology interaction with science educators and to develop interdisciplinary nanotechnology curriculum through the National Science Foundation.

Nanotechnology has the potential to create entirely new industries and radically transform our nation’s capacity to compete globally. It is time we do what’s necessary to make NANO the next national priority.

U.S. Rep. Michael Honda, D-San Jose, serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.

Foresight Institute Vice President Christine L. Peterson served on the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Nanotechnology mentioned in this opinion piece.

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