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Why Fund Nanotechnology?

The state of nanotechnology today represents something of a paradox. On the one hand, new products using nanotechnology have been developed and are in the marketplace. On the other hand, understanding of the underlying properties of nanoscale materials and structures is still at a rudimentary level. Many existing models for explaining material, device, and system behavior do not extrapolate to the nanoscale regime. In order to maximize the development of future innovations, a significant portion of the NNI investment is directed toward basic research to achieve a fundamental understanding of nanoscale properties and processes.

Basic research, even when aimed at a specific problem, can lead to surprising new results. Such surprises frequently are the bases for the most innovative technological advances. Therefore, a broad-based, balanced, knowledge-oriented research investment is crucial not only to advancing the frontiers of science, but also to realizing the full economic potential of nanotechnology. The surprising discoveries and new research tools that result from investment in nanotechnology research will undoubtedly have far-reaching impacts in other fields of science and engineering as well. Many agencies—such as NSF and DOE—have a focus on support for fundamental research.

As it has in the past in areas such as information technology and biotechnology, investing in basic research in nanotechnology is expected to lead to significant, new economically valuable technologies. However, the time to take a concept developed through basic nanotechnology research to a commercial product is beyond five or even ten years—or, for truly fundamental research, may be altogether unknown. Therefore, private investors are not generally in a position to provide the necessary financial support. Because nanotechnology is of such critical import to U.S. competitiveness, both economically and technologically, even at this early stage of development, it is a top priority within the Administration’s R&D agenda.

picture By Focusing on Applications

A broad, balanced basic research program both complements and supports more focused work aimed at incorporating scientific discoveries into innovative technologies. Many agencies—such as DOD, DOE, EPA, NASA, NIH, and USDA—support applied research aimed at developing technology related to the agency’s mission. Federal investment in a combination of fundamental and applied research will move novel concepts closer to applications that are useful for both government and commercial purposes.

picture Through Multidisciplinary Collaborations

Another aspect of nanotechnology R&D worth noting is the key role played by multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary efforts. That is, advances will be built upon progress in more than one area of research or on truly collaborative interactions among researchers from various disciplines. A key component of the NNI is coordination of the Federal investment and strengthening of intra- and interagency efforts fostering multidisciplinary research.

picture By Facilitating Technology Transfer

At this early stage, an important mechanism by which nanotechnology can find its way into commercial applications is through interaction among industry, academic, and government researchers. Such networking and partnering is facilitated and encouraged under the NNI by the establishment or support of centers, networks, and facilities that are available to researchers from all sectors. Examples include the existing National Nanofabrication Users Network (NNUN) and a suite of Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRCs), each with a specific focus, to be co-located at Federal laboratories across the country. Interaction among researchers from various sectors is also facilitated under the NNI through the organization of topical workshops.

Additionally, small businesses, which are frequently at the forefront of the development of new, high technology products, can receive support through the agency-run Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs directed specifically at nanotechnology-based solutions. A goal of all of these efforts is to expedite knowledge transfer and, ultimately, to facilitate commercialization of nanotechnology. By addressing measurements, standards, and manufacturing directly in the grand challenges, the NNI is ensuring that the appropriate infrastructure is developed to facilitate the rapid commercialization of laboratory successes.

pictures For Enhanced U.S. Competitiveness

The United States is not the only nation to recognize the tremendous economic potential of nanotechnology. While difficult to accurately measure, some have estimated that worldwide government funding has increased to about five times what it was in 1997, exceeding $2 billion in 2002. In the United States, the Federal investment in nanotechnology R&D has increased from $116 million in FY 1997 to a request of $849 million in FY 2004. In order to realize nanotechnology’s full potential and to maintain a competitive position in the worldwide nanotechnology marketplace, the Federal Government’s investment will continue to play a critical role in accelerating scientific discovery and nurturing new technologies and fledgling industries.

pictures Responsibly

Since the inception of the NNI, assessing the implications of the technology has been an integral part of the planning and programs of the Initiative. Research on implications for human health, society, and the environment is increasingly being emphasized as tangible new nanostructures and nanomaterials are discovered and new nanotechnology products are developed.


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