Senators to Move on Nanotechnology in Nanoseconds

Nanotechnology is attracting a lot of attention on Capitol Hill.

In its National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace draft released today, the Presidents Critical Infrastructure Protection Board named nanotechnology as having the potential to reshape cyberspace and its security. Meanwhile this week, a group of senators introduced legislation to increase federal research and development funding for the science of tiny particles, and the chambers science panel is already poised to polish up the bill tomorrow.

Nanotechnology is widely considered in its nascent stage, but the federal government wants to make sure that the United States remains its primary guardian as it grows up. As the PCIPB noted in its strategy, new technologies, including nanotechnology, can create unforeseen security consequences. To mitigate potential vulnerabilities exposed by rapid technological advances, the board recommended federally funded R&D to examine the security implications.

Like many of the recommendations listed in the strategy released for comment, the emerging technology proposal was toned down from earlier recommendations under consideration. An August draft of the boards strategy explicitly singled out nanotechnology and quantum computing for new federal funds. That draft also suggested that a risk assessment of the possible threats posed by quantum computing, intelligent agents and nanotechnology be conducted and that a mitigation strategy be developed.

On Wednesday, the Senate held the first-ever hearing on nanotechnology, and Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and George Allen, R-Va., rolled out the "21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act." Wyden noted that the technology has great potential for the economy, particularly in the fields of manufacturing, electronics, health care and agriculture.

The legislation would create a National Nanotechnology Research Program, which would bring together various agencies working on nanoscale research and coordinate their efforts. It would also establish a Presidential National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel and a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office to support the panel and the program. And a Center for Societal, Ethical, Educational, Legal and Workforce Issues Related to Nanotechnology would be created to examine potential effects.

In testimony delivered to the Senate Science, Technology and Space subcommittee, Richard Russell, associate director for technology at the White Houses Office of Science and Technology Policy, told lawmakers that funding for nanotechnology increased 17 percent for fiscal year 2003 to $679 million. Because of the complexity, cost and high risk associated with the fields research, the private sector is often unable to guarantee short to medium-term return on nanotechnology investments, Russell told lawmakers in his testimony.

Earlier this month, Hewelett Packard announced a nanotechnology advancement in molecular electronics, developed by a joint federal/industry funded project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Researchers came up with a way to make nanoscale wires separated by a thousand molecules, opening new possibilities for microelectronic miniaturization and memory storage.

Stan Williams, director of Quantum Science Research at Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, Calif., in testimony before the subcommittee cautioned against becoming overly enthusiastic with the pocketbook. "It would be a mistake to put too much money earmarked for nanotechnology too quickly into the research community, since it could not adjust and efficiently absorb that funding," Williams told lawmakers.

Today the United States sponsors approximately 25 percent of the global federal funding for nanotechnologies, and Williams advised that the government invest more in basic research to ensure that the nation continues to host the best researchers in the field.

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