Samuel Stupp, a materials science professor and chairman of the NRC committee that reviewed the NNI, said understanding the nanoscale, where individual atoms and molecules interact, cannot be limited to a single field of study.
"To realize the potential of nanoscale science and technology in advanced medicine will require research at the interface between engineering, the physical sciences and biology," Stupp said in introducing the report. "(Developing such science) will require generations of interdisciplinary scientists and engineers who can learn and operate across traditional boundaries."
The initiative funded about 2,000 programs last year, the National Science Foundation, which oversees the effort, reported. The White House's fiscal year 2003 budget would devote more than $600 million to NNI activities -- less than 1 percent of federal R&D spending, but about 30 percent of worldwide government nanotech investment, NSF figures show.
The report lauds NSF's leadership in the initiative, including identification of several broad technical areas requiring intensive effort. NRC offers several recommendations for following through on that good start, including:
-- developing a "crisp, compelling, overarching strategic plan," which should include short- (1 to 5 years), medium- (6 to 10 years) and long-range (beyond 10 years) goals. The plan should also have a means for accelerating promising ideas into applications, as well as specific milestones for meeting goals.
-- fostering more interdisciplinary work by increasing joint research programs among disparate government agencies, including specific grants for collaborations between the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the NSF.
-- nurturing industrial partnerships both domestically and abroad to commercialize NNI developments, including coordination of state programs and organization of regional competitive centers.
The report did a largely commendable job in highlighting areas for improvement in NNI, said Rick Snyder, chief executive officer of Ardesta, of Ann Arbor, Mich., a venture capital/technology incubator company that focuses on developing technology, including nanoscience.
"There's a lot of merit to the recommendations," Snyder told United Press International. "It would have been useful to get more commercial/industrial input on them."
The idea of state and regional activities is one area in particular that could have benefited from additional outside comment, Snyder said. Since nanotech applications are easily divided into particular industry areas, perhaps that is where the competitive centers should go, instead of having states continue fighting it out for grant money, he said.
Although such compartmentalization might conflict with the idea of spurring interdisciplinary work, proper publishing of research results would help the entire scientific community, Snyder said. Developing hard-and-fast research milestones could especially help government agencies, he said.
"Metrics on the research side is a particular challenge, because how do you evaluate effective research?" Snyder said. "Instead of just saying this is good research or not, we can come up with some classifications where some research, before it would get more than seed funding, would have to tie into development."
The government should also consider opening up nanotech-related research labs, possibly for a fee, to commercial researchers and potential start-up companies, Snyder said. The measurement and pre-production technology available at the labs, normally too expensive for many research projects, could help prove nanoscience concepts to the point where venture capital would fund further work, he said.