Portland, Ore. - President Bush last week signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act into law. The $3.7 billion appropriation, which earlier had been approved by Congress after months of haggling, will be divided among eight government agencies (see table).
Nanotechnology "has the potential to be the making of a revolution because it can be an enabling technology, fundamentally changing the way many items are designed and manufactured," said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif. "And we've all probably heard the National Science Foundation prediction that the worldwide market for nanotechnology products and services could reach $1 trillion by 2015."
Honda co-introduced the original 2003 Nanotechnology Act, which sought to provide $2.36 billion over three years, for an average of $787 million per year. The legislation signed last week brings the average annual appropriation to $925 million and extends the program to four years.
The bill authorizes the president to create a permanent National Nanotechnology Research Program (NNRP) to replace the expiring National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NNRP, according to the bill, is a "coordinated interagency program that will support long-term nanoscale research and development leading to potential breakthroughs in areas such as materials and manufacturing, nanoelectronics, medicine and health care, environment, energy, chemicals, biotechnology, agriculture, information technology, and national and homeland security."
The act encourages the development of networked facilities linking academic institutions, national labs and industry. It will encourage broad participation by granting awards of less than $1 million to small research groups. And it sets $3 million to $5 million as the figure of merit for Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center grants.
The act elaborates a list of "grand challenges" as the long-term guiding light for both individual research groups and the six national Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers, located at Columbia University (New York), Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.), Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.), Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.) and Rice University (Houston).
Those grand challenges are to design materials-including nanoelectronics, optoelectronics and magnetics-that are stronger, lighter, harder, safer and self-repairing. Health care applications are specifically cited, and so are nanoscale processes, environmental solutions, energy management and energy conservation.
The legislation also calls for the development of economical, efficient and safe transportation, including the development of microspacecraft that can overcome the Earth's gravity field when blasting off and survive the rigors of space flight in a manner that's cheaper and more environmentally friendly than Titan-sized missiles or the grounded space shuttle fleet.
Another challenge posed by the act is the development of biologically oriented nanodevices for detection and mitigation of biologically based threats to humans.
The act also instructs the director of the National Science Foundation to "establish a new center for societal, ethical, educational, legal and work force issues related to nanotechnology at $5,000,000 per year to encourage, conduct, coordinate, commission, collect and disseminate research."
In an attempt to coordinate the diverse goals and programs, the act directs the president to establish a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. The NNC will handle day-to-day technical and administrative support and act as the point of contact on all federal nanotechnology activities for government organizations, academia, industry, professional societies, state nanotechnology programs and others wishing to exchange technical and programmatic information. Its charter is to "grease the skids" for research efforts among agencies, scientific disciplines and U.S. industry.
Impact on ethics
In answer to the dire predictions of doomsayers fearing runaway nanobots, the act also authorizes public hearings and expert advisory panels, as well as an American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center that will study nanotechnology's potential societal and ethical impact.
The House version of the bill was negotiated during the past two months along with different Senate versions, with the final bill being a compromise of the legislation introduced in each chamber.