President Signs Major Nanotechnology Bill

Thursday, January 1, 2004 - 01:00

On December 3, President Bush signed into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. The Act authorizes $3.7 billion in federal support for nanotechnology - the creation of materials and devices on the scale of nanometers (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter) and the exploitation of novel properties and phenomena that exist at that scale.

The National Science Foundation has estimated that the seemingly unlimited uses of nanotechnology will lead to a $1 trillion market in nanotechnology-based products by 2015. The legislation passed this month is designed to ensure that the United States is a leading competitor in that market.

What Is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology involves moving individual atoms and molecules, building machines using molecular building blocks, and creating new kinds of materials and structures from the bottom up. Science and technology on the scale of a nanometer is revolutionary.It could change the way almost everything works - from medicines to computers, from clothing to skyscrapers - and lead to new products not yet imagined.

Nanotechnology is revolutionary for two primary reasons. First, it allows engineers to develop machines and structures that are much smaller than anything we have been able to produce until now. Second, ordinary materials have extraordinary properties when manipulated on the nanometer scale.

As one example, carbon atoms can be arranged into tubes that are much stronger and lighter than steel. Already, nanotechnology is being used to make stronger tennis rackets, stain-free pants, and faster computers. More applications are being developed every day, especially in the field of medicine.

What Does The Act Do?

The Nanotechnology Act will give the American nanotechnology industry a strong push, and will help bridge the funding gap between basic research and commercialization. The Act has three main components:

• It authorizes the President's National Nanotechnology Initiative, along with necessary funding;

• It creates a series of centers to coordinate research, promote technology transfer, and address societal, ethical, and environmental issues; and

• It establishes advisory boards and review processes to set national goals and ensure efficient progress.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative is the President's program for supporting and guiding nanotechnology research. It sets long-term research goals, fosters cooperation between industry and academia, and assists regional nanotechnology development efforts.

One center created by the Act, the American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center, will study the potential societal and ethical effects of this new technology. Other centers will address questions involving release of nanoparticles into the environment and similar issues.

From the beginning, the nanotechnology industry has shown a willingness to address legitimate concerns about the technology. The industry has drawn its lessons from the genetically-modified food fight, and has vowed not to make the mistakes that defeated that industry. At the same time, however, the temptation to succumb to irrational fears about nanotechnology - self-replicating nanomachines, for example - must be resisted.

Through its trade association, the NanoBusiness Alliance, the nanotechnology industry worked for three years to pass this important legislation. F. Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the Alliance, praised the bill, saying that "it makes nanotechnology the highest priority funded science and technology effort since the space race."

What's Next?

Now that the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act has become law, the programs it authorizes will need to be funded through the appropriations process. At the same time, funding bills for other parts of the government-Energy, Defense, and Commerce, to name a few-will have opportunities for funding particular projects. Being involved in this part of the process is vital for nanotechnology companies that want federal money.

We will be working with the NanoBusiness Alliance to ensure that nanotechnology is fully funded. We also have been at work on behalf of individual companies and non-profit groups to obtain funding for specific projects. The cycle that begins this winter will offer many opportunities for businesses and organizations that seize them.

Many people are first learning about nanotechnology from fictional works like Michael Crichton's Prey, a novel in which swarms of intelligent, self-replicating nanorobots hunt and kill humans. Of course, just as it did not follow from Jurassic Park that anti-dinosaur regulations were needed, it does not follow from Prey that we need to worry about intelligent, self-replicating nanorobots.

Going forward, it will be important for the nanotechnology industry to address the legitimate issues that nanotechnology raises, without allowing the discussion to be hijacked by fringe groups. Already, one radical group is calling for a moratorium on nanotechnology research, a policy which would do nothing but guarantee that the United States would lose any opportunity for leadership in the field. Ensuring that nanotechnology regulations are based on sound policy rather than unfounded fear will be critically important.

Individual companies also need to pay careful attention to intellectual property, export control, and technology transfer issues. The intellectual property environment surrounding nanotechnology is often characterized as a "minefield," and regulators have yet to directly address nanotechnology in terms of export controls.

R. Paul Stimers is an associate in the federal policy and infotech policy departments in the Washington, D.C. office of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP. He focuses his lobbying efforts on matters related to information technology, and advises a wide range of companies and industry associations in pursuing legislation and representing their interests before Congress and Federal Agencies. (202) 628-1700