Contrary to many of the grand gestures made by presidents and congresses past, the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act that Bush signed might just live up to its potential.
"It makes nanotechnology the highest priority funded science and technology effort since the space race," F. Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance in New York, told United Press International.
Nearly every company in the Fortune 500 involved in manufacturing now is already entering nanotech, which is science and engineering on the scale of nanometers, or billionths of a meter.
"The idea behind this bill is simple yet powerful -- the American economy will grow bigger if America's scientists and engineers focus on things that are smaller," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., one of the bill's primary backers, noted in a statement.
Global companies involved in major R&D efforts include IBM, Hewlett-Packard, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, ChevronTexaco, Samsung, Mitsubishi and DaimlerChrysler. Venture capital investment is growing rapidly, with more than $1 billion over the last three years, the NanoBusiness Alliance estimates, and this year may see as much as $700 million.
"Nanotech represents the 'next big thing,'" said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., who introduced the House version of the nanotechnology bill. "It has the potential to be the making of a revolution."
The National Science Foundation has estimated that nanotech applications may prove to be worth more than $1 trillion to the global economy within just a decade.
"In the last three years, to show how the field has been expanding, worldwide investments in development have increased by more than 50 percent per year," Mihail Roco, director of the National Nanotechnology Initiative and senior nanotech advisor for the NSF, told UPI. "Because nanotechnology provides the control over the foundation of matter, including living systems and manmade systems, the field is expanding on the fast track. This bill recognizes this is a key technology for the United States."
Roco estimates a whopping 95 percent of the $3.7 billion authorized today will go to scientific research and development -- roughly 60 percent for academia and 35 percent for government labs. "The role of the initiative is to create the foundation where industry can pick up ideas, pick up people, pick up programs," he explained.
There are more than 1,500 nanotech startups around the world, including approximately 1,100 in the United States, Modzelewski said.
"Except for 10 of the startups, all were started by college professors. This work is creating the startups of tomorrow. It cannot be discounted how important that is," he noted. "The money here will feed development."
Experts say this bill could help ensure U.S. dominance in nanotechnology. "If the United States doesn't take the lead, it will pass to Japan or China," nanotech ethics expert David Berube of the University of South Carolina told UPI. "Nanotechnology needs nurturing. More than the Manhattan Project (which developed the first atomic bomb), nanotechnology is like the space program -- without the government, it couldn't have taken off. Applications are 10, 15, 25 years down the line, and no corporation has interest in funding something that isn't going to bring back a profit ratio."
The nanotech bill's passage also was notable for its lack of acrimonious debate, in contrast with other, major legislative products of the past year. The measure has enjoyed broad bipartisan backing, as well as the endorsement of the NanoBusiness Alliance's more than 250 members and the support of the National Association of Manufacturers, Semiconductor Industry Association, Association for Computing Machinery, Computing Research Association, Association of American Universities, Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America and the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers.
"For a multibillion dollar bill, I dare anyone to see any pork in it," Modzelewski added. He is a member of the Nanotechnology Technical Advisory Group, composed of 35 of nanotech's luminaries from academia and business who advised the White House. "Everything is very competitive and open, to look for the best solutions and the best people to get the best money."
Not that everything about nanotechnology is perfect, however, as even its sponsors acknowledge. That is why the bill also will focus on the societal and ethical impacts of this new branch of science and technology.
"I think everybody supported the overall concept of looking at the consequences of nanotechnology," Modzelewski said. "Everybody wants to look at the ... impacts ahead of time to avoid any backlash or lawsuits at a later date."
Industry should be a little concerned, nevertheless, Berube said. "In the past, social scientists, humanists and ethicists have normally had to respond to disasters. What this would be is a wholly different system, being incorporated in the get go."
An issue of contention with the bill involved how to divide the funding. In the end, lawmakers decided to spread the money among diversified and cooperative projects, instead of focusing on a single research center -- although funds likely will be confined to a single institution to study nanotech ethics.
Berube said he expects NSF to hold a competition for the ethics center. "If I had to pick three or four universities, I would say the University of South Carolina, Rice and UCLA," he said. "All of us are doing societal or ethical work into this of one kind or another." If his university gets the center, Berube would be its manager.
"We're doing a plethora of things on general ethics, especially toxicology and environmental research. The first impact of nanotech we're studying is serious workplace research, in terms of sectoral dislocations," Berube explained.
The bill is important, he continued, because it finally gives a sense of permanence to the National Nanotechnology Initiative established in October 2000 during the Clinton administration. Over the past three years, the initiative has shortened the expected development time for commercial nanotech prototypes by a factor of two and introduced nanotechnology education in nearly all the large universities, Roco said.
"There was amazing support for the initiative from Clinton and Bush," Modzelewski said. "But before this bill passed, the fact remains if the president did not put money for it into the budget every year, it would cease to exist.
Roco agreed. "For the first time, nanotechnology will be institutionalized in the federal government," he said. Up to now, it was under the discretion of the president to fund it. From now on, it will be a requirement to do so."
After four years, Modzelewski expects another reassessment of nanotech research priorities. Meanwhile, he said he expected to see near-term results in such areas as the ability to store hydrogen or create very cheap but effective photovoltaics for more solar power use, and the ability to identify cancers at the earliest stages.
Over the longer term, he said, "the sky's the limit," including quantum computing and implantable devices to replace the liver or kidneys.
"We're still in our R&D years," Modzelewski cautioned. "I think afterwards we're going to have good ideas on how the markets will accept nanotechnology. It's hard to say what the next bill will look like. It may focus more on business, or go back to the roots of pure, raw, basic research, if the commercial markets are handling a lot of the other work."
Charles Choi covers research issues for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com