$7 billion on nanotech R&D, and what do we have to show for it?

In 2004, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) had a strategy – and it was OK.  But what has happened since then?  Has progress been made against planned actions?  What have been the major challenges to progress?  Have effective solutions been found?  And how have the lessons and experiences of the last three years influenced strategic nano-thinking in the government?

You might be forgiven for supposing that the updated Strategic Plan – published this week – holds the answers.  No such luck!

This is a document that discusses generalities and avoids specifics.  Whereas the 2004 report laid out a clear action plan for making progress, this report revels in bureaucratic obfuscation.

Cutting through the fog, the updated strategy document emphasizes innovation and business interests – while hinting that societal issues are a necessary inconvenience to progress.  Citizen engagement is recognized as being important, but ideas on how to do it extend little further than public observers at scientific strategy-setting workshops, and maintaining the NNI website.  And while environmental, safety and health issues receive more emphasis than in 2004, there is little sense of a strategy for supporting successful and beneficial nanotechnologies through understanding and managing risks effectively.

Not all is disappointing in this new document though:

  • The updated NNI vision for nanotechnology inspires confidence: “a future in which the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale leads to a revolution in technology and industry that benefits society.”
  • Environment, health and safety research is now recognized as a major subject area in its own right.
  • Ten “high impact application opportunities” do a good job of mapping out near-term opportunities—four of which directly deal with the implications of nanotechnology, and two of which align with the grand challenges for safe nanotechnology published in Nature, back in 2006.
  • Some of the ideas for making progress have real value – such as exchanging scientists across federal agencies.

Yet at the end of the day, this is a lightweight document, that does not give a concrete assessment of where we are now, and is short on actions we need to take to ensure the development of safe, sustainable and successful nanotechnologies.

And while the plan is grounded in the first phases of nanotechnology development, it lacks the vision of an innovative and transformative nanotechnology future as articulated by Mike Roco and others.  Where is the strategy for fostering and exploiting third and fourth generation nanotechnologies, and synergistic convergences between nanotech, biotech and other “techs?”

Since 2001, the U.S. government has invested nearly $7 billion in nanotechnology R&D.  As the 21st Century Research & Development Act comes up for reauthorization in 2008, Congress is going to be asking: “was it worth it?”  Based on this document, some might be excused for having their doubts.

And yet, the potential for nanotechnology to change the world is clearly there.  As other nations develop their own strategic plans to move up the nanotech ladder, I suspect many in the U.S. will be hoping that this latest exercise in bureaucracy from the NNI is merely the tip of a largely hidden iceberg, rather than a true reflection of reality.

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This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in January 2008

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