By Aatish Salvi
The 21st Century R&D Act, signed into law in 2003, emphasized the importance of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and propelled America to the forefront of global innovation by committing to a multi-billion-dollar, four-year investment in nanotechnology. This year, that Act is due to expire, and its re-authorization is critical for our continued leadership in global innovation.
America's commitment to nanoscience has started a global race to master matter on the nanoscale—one that is reminiscent of the days of the Apollo Program. Recent entrants such as Taiwan, India, and Singapore, combined with incumbents China and Japan, have generated Asia's high double-digit growth in nanotech spending. According to Lux Research, growth of corporate spending in Asia between 2005 and 2006 was a staggering 31%, and Asian government funding has grown by 11% during that same time period. To our credit, although US corporate spending only grew by 8%, the US government's investment in nanotechnology grew by 12.5% from 2005 to 2006. This growth in government spending reflects a positive trend that has been the primary driver for America's leadership in nanoscience. However, because of cost-structures and foreign exchange rates, when purchasing power is taken into account Asia now leads the world in its investment in nanotechnology.
The focus of the US investment in nanotechnology has been in fundamental research. We lead in the production of ideas, White Papers, and patents. Asia's growing investment has also been focused—largely on taking America's fundamental research and commercializing it. To "win" the nanotech race, great ideas will not be enough; we will need to start bringing the disparate threads of fundamental research together to solve specific socially and economically meaningful problems. The re-authorized 21st Century R&D Act must re-dedicate itself to fundamental research while increasing our focus on goal-oriented research areas that deal with complex systems. We did not land on the moon through the force of patents and papers alone. At some point we had to build a rocket.
To drive this integrated, goal-oriented research we need to develop new kinds of research centers. Most NNI centers today have broad topic areas and are administered by single agencies. In addition to these, the centers of the future should be cross-agency collaborations between mission-oriented agencies (such as DOD, DOE, and NIST) and science-oriented agencies such as the NSF. This model is currently used by the "Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence," which are collaborations among NIH, NSF, and NIST and which have generated many breakthroughs in our fight against cancer. We should authorize new, goal-oriented research centers that follow suit and tackle key areas of human endeavor such as renewable energy, water remediation and purification, green manufacturing, energy-efficient materials, disease diagnostics and therapy, and next-generation electronics.
The re-authorization of the 21st Century R&D Act also has an important role to play in the responsible development of nanotechnology. Research efforts over the past few years have focused largely on measuring toxicity. These toxicity studies generally do not use well-characterized materials or realistic exposure environments and have generated more alarm than they have created certainty. It is not clear that nanomaterials can escape from the products and solutions to which they are bound in sufficient amounts to cause harm, and comparatively little research work has been done on measuring exposure. Efforts like those of the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory need to be expanded so that we can build well-characterized and standardized libraries of important materials for use in research. Work with these standard materials should be used to develop theoretical models that will allow us to control any potential hazard in the material design phase, at the lab bench and without resorting to expensive toxicology testing.
As the economy becomes an ever-increasing source of concern, the importance of the re-authorization of the 21st Century R&D Act cannot be overstated. The applications resulting from goal-oriented research will drive change in existing industries. For instance, printing presses will use nanotech-enabled conductive inks to print flexible electronic circuits that cost a fraction of those being produced in Taiwan. Nanotech-enabled batteries will give US automakers the ability to compete with the electric vehicles from Asian companies. Nanomaterials will allow us to diagnose and treat diseases earlier and more accurately than ever before. And chemical manufacturing will dramatically increase its output and reduce waste as nanoscale catalysts result in vastly more-efficient reactions.
The re-authorization of the 21st Century R&D Act will likely be presented through the Senate Commerce and House Science Committees and I encourage readers to write to their representatives in the House and Senate and impress upon them the importance of this initiative. I also welcome you to contact me if you would like more information or wish to join this critical effort to maintain America's leadership in nanotechnology research.
Nanotechnology will revitalize US industry, create new manufacturing opportunities and jobs, and define America's technology competitiveness in the global marketplace.
Aatish Salvi is vice president of the NanoBusiness Alliance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.