Think Tiny, Think Big

By Barton Reppert

February 1, 2003

Imagine shrinking all the information at the Library of Congress into a device the size of a sugar cube or detecting cancerous tumors as tiny as a few cells. That was President Clinton's vision when he announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000.

Federal scientists, together with researchers at universities and in industry, have been working to harness the vast world of microscopic materials and structures to develop breakthrough technologies that include computers as small as the head of a pin. The $700 million program to support cutting-edge research in nanotechnology is moving ahead surprisingly well, considering the difficulties in management and coordination among 16 agencies.

Despite the ultra-small working scale, government officials and researchers expect the nanotechnology initiative to produce macro-sized payoffs. The multi-agency effort is designed to pave the way for revolutionary breakthroughs in advanced materials and manufacturing, computers and electronics, aerospace technology, medicine and health care, environment, energy, biotechnology, agriculture and national security. Research goals include developing materials with 10 times the strength of steel, but only a fraction of the weight, and tiny "quantum dots"-crystals that emit different wavelengths of light, depending on their size. Such dots offer applications for advanced lasers and computers, as well as for possible biological markers of cellular activity.

In the emerging world of nanotechnology, scientists and engineers are manipulating matter atom by atom, molecule by molecule. Dimensions are measured in billionths of a meter-or approximately 1/100,000th the diameter of a human hair.

Funded by 10 agencies, the nanotechnology initiative was launched in fiscal 2001 with a budget of $464 million. Funding jumped to $604 million for fiscal 2002, and $710 million has been requested for fiscal 2003. Some researchers say federal support should be ramped up even more rapidly to take advantage of new developments in the field and keep pace with nanotechnology efforts in Europe and Japan.

The Bush administration is enthusiastic about providing continued support and funding for the nanotechnology initiative. John Marburger, the president's science adviser and chief of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has made nanotechnology one of six research priorities.

The nanotechnology initiative "holds great promise across many scientific fields and most sectors of the economy," Marburger and Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels said in a May 30 memo to department and agency heads involved in the program. "Of particular importance are nanostructures that more effectively collect and deliver samples to sophisticated sensors (chemical, biological, radiological, electromagnetic, photonic, acoustic, or magnetic)," they noted. The enhanced sensors are being developed for such applications as rapid detection of chemical and biological weap- ons on the battlefield as well as in terrorist attacks.

Physicist Neal Lane, who was President Clinton's science adviser and a leader in the nanotechnology initiative, is pleased with the government's progress.

"The excitement that we noted in the research community for work in nanoscale science and engineering has simply continued to grow. And, of course, that's very important, because a lot of these questions still remain-very fundamental research questions. So you've got to have the best people in fields like chemistry, physics, materials, biology working on these problems," says Lane, now a professor at Rice University in Houston.

Major players in the nanotechnology initiative include the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation, the Defense Department, the Energy Department, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Institutes of Health. Also funding some research are the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture, Justice and Transportation departments. Other agencies with input are the Food and Drug Administration,the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the State and Treasury departments.

At the White House, the nanotechnology initiative is managed by the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET). The subcommittee's 41 members include representatives of the White House and the 16 agencies involved. The council's National Nanotechnology Coordination Office handles technical and administrative support.

The National Academy of Sciences praised the initiative's progress in a June 2002 report. "The leadership and investment strategy established by NSET has set a positive tone for the NNI [National Nanotechnology Initiative]," the report said. "The initial success of the NNI can also be measured by the number of foreign governments that have established similar . . . programs in response."

But Samuel Stupp, chairman of the academy's review committee, sees room for management improvements. "I wouldn't say that there have been serious shortcomings. That's maybe a bit too strong. I would say that they have been doing a fair job, but they could do better." Stupp is director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanoscience in Advanced Medicine at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

The review panel pointed to problems with both interagency coordination and the development of interagency partnerships.

"NSET forms a solid foundation on which to build an NNI that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. However, more is needed to achieve meaningful interagency coordination and collaboration," the report said. The panel recommended formation of a nanoscience and nanotechnology advisory board "capable of identifying research opportunities that do not fit within any single agency's mission.

"NSET member agencies have done a much better job of encouraging federal partnerships with industry, universities and local government than they have of encouraging meaningful interagency partnerships," the report said. "While the NNI implementation plan lists major interagency collaborations, the committee has no sense that there is much common strategic planning in those areas, any significant interagency communication between researchers working in those areas, or any significant sharing of results before they are published in the open literature."

Managing the nanotechnology initiative can be "like herding cats," says James Murday, executive secretary of the nanoscale science subcommittee and director of the coordination office. "You've got 16 different groups. They have very diverse interests, very diverse ways of doing things," Murday says.

In developing effective interagency partnerships, Murday says, part of the challenge is dealing with different agency cultures and operating methods. For example, he says, the NSF disperses university research grants through peer review panels, while the Defense Department leaves the decisions to its program managers.

Another challenge is the rapidly expanding workload. Murday, superintendent of the chemistry division at the Naval Research Laboratory, says his job as director of the coordination office was supposed to be half time, but he puts in 70-hour workweeks. The coordination office, based in Arlington, Va., plans to replace Murday with a full-time director and bring aboard a third contract staffer.

Researchers are upbeat about the potential benefits of nanotechnology, but there is also an undercurrent of concern about the risks inherent in such research. One of the most outspoken critics of the technology is Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

"I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil," Joy wrote in the April 2000 issue of Wired magazine. "Unfortunately, as with nuclear technology, it is far easier to create destructive uses for nanotechnology than constructive ones. Nanotechnology has clear military and terrorist uses." He proposed that the government and scientific community set stringent limits on how far nanotechnology research will be pursued.

Richard Russell, associate director for technology at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, acknowledges that there are dangers with any scientific endeavor.

But with nanotechnology, Russell says, "the kind of research that we're talking about is in areas that are directly helpful to both our economy and things like human health. So we don't view research in these areas to be something that we should be afraid of. It's research that is going to be beneficial to the human race."

Here are the fiscal 2003 budget requests for nanotechnology at the major agencies involved in the nanotechnology initiative:
$221 million National Science Foundation
$201 million Defense
$139.3 million Energy
$51 million NASA
$43.8 million National Institute of Standards and Technology
$43.2 million National Institutes of Health

Barton Reppert is a freelance journalist who previously worked with The Associated Press for 18 years in Washington, New York and Moscow. His e-mail address is

By Barton Reppert

February 1, 2003