Interview: Sen. Wyden eyes nanotech

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  Sept. 26, 2002 at 7:55 PM
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As legislation to ensure the nation's continued progress in studying nanotechnology heads to the Senate floor, its co-author sees nearly unlimited potential for the field.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act Sept. 17, co-sponsored by Sens. George Allen, R-Va., Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Mary Landrieu, D-La.

Even though the public has yet to grasp idea of nanotech, the science of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular level, the country must ensure its abilities in this area, Wyden said.

The legislation builds on the existing National Nanotechnology Initiative, a multi-agency program started during the Clinton administration. President Bush's 2003 budget proposal would devote $679 million to NNI activities in basic nano research, and Wyden's bill covers $446 million of NNI activities focused on non-Department of Defense agencies.

Wyden's legislation also calls for regular reviews of the program by presidential and independent committees, as well as worldwide benchmarking studies to compare U.S. efforts with those in Europe, Japan and elsewhere.

In addition, the bill addresses the educational aspects of nanoscience, Wyden said, through means including research grants for undergraduate and graduate studies. The bill is supported by groups including the NanoBusiness Alliance and the Virginia Initiative for Nanotechnology. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed Wyden's bill Sept. 19, and is preparing to send it to the Senate floor.

Wyden discussed nanotech's potential with United Press International before he introduced the bill.

UPI: Let's start with how policymakers deal with the issue the media has, trying to explain to the general public what nanotechnology is in such a way as to make it plain that funding is worthwhile?

Wyden: It's going to be a challenge. There's no question today that if you walk into a senior citizen center or a Safeway store or something, people are not exactly buzzing about nanotechnology. If we show people practical applications, how it can revolutionize their lives, that's the best way to deal with it. In that sense, it's not very different with a lot of what we've had to deal with on (the Commerce and Science Committee). The potential here is certainly extraordinary, which makes it all the more important to take the time to get this right. A big part of what we have to do is use this committee as sort of a bully pulpit to walk through technology questions, show the practical applications and relate them to the goals that often sound strange at the beginning, but could become part of people's daily conversation before too long.

UPI: There are some everyday things that people will understand, sunblock with nanoparticles where you don't have the white blotches on your face anymore, or stain-free pants ...

Wyden: I think there's not much awareness of the potential for good-paying jobs that this field promises. That's very much on the minds of people in our country right now. Showing those kinds of benefits at this point is especially helpful.

UPI: That's one of the interesting parts in your bill, the idea of looking for economically disadvantaged areas of the country where there might be some manufacturing or technology base that could be used for nanotech development. What are some of the areas that come to mind, either geographically or otherwise?

Wyden: Certainly health care has a lot of potential applications, but there isn't a scientific field that can't be shown to be ripe for revolutionary changes in the way it operates (with nanotech). This is about a fundamental restructuring of a set of technologies with near-limitless potential.

UPI: When we say nanotech, it's sometimes better to talk about nanoscience, since the idea of dealing with matter at the nanometer scale touches on practically every area of physical science.

Wyden: This is the area where science and technology intersect, that's how I'd characterize it. There will be more instances of that as we see more and more nanotech applications.

UPI: Given the work that's already underway at the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and even regular academic research, what would appear to be the field of science or area of technology that might first benefit from devices at the nanoscale, whether it be nanoelectronics or something much further afield, such as nanorobotics for medicine?

Wyden: I don't think the health care applications are that far down the road, I guess you could call it nanohealth. There's nanoagriculture, there'll be a variety of applications. I want to listen to the possibilities, I don't see this (process) as anything other than an opportunity to learn.

Part of what we've got to do is figure out the question of these agencies (working on nanotech) being strewn all over Washington. We'd like to bring them together and bring about a more coordinated approach. I see there being a real role for the government in terms of startup research. Let's take the two we've been talking about, electronics and health. Startup investments are going to be key, and venture capital is hard to get right now in a slippery economy. Some modest investments in the startup end can pay big dividends down the road.

UPI: By the same token, when we talk about the government funding research, a lot of the time the justification is that it's going to result in material advances for society. Given that a great deal of nanotech is several years off in terms of affecting society, how do you balance the proper role of government funding against over-hyping the idea?

Wyden: We're not going to over-hype it, we're going to say the government can't afford not to make these early investments. No one can pretend it'll be out there in the next 15 minutes ... but there will be benefits for society, which of course is the litmus test.

UPI: (Better coordination among agencies) is one of the reasons the NNI has been stood up and been going on for a couple of years.

Wyden: It's useful, I want to make that clear. No one's saying junk it or throw it aside, but even with the initiative you're talking about six or seven agencies out there. That to me is the centerpiece for Congress stepping in, saying we're going to work with the administration, with those who are involved in the initiative and see how we can build on it.

UPI: When we talk about the interdisciplinary aspect of nanotech, how you have to combine physics, electrical engineering, material science, etc. in order to deal with things at that level, a lot of people mention the education possibilities. How would your bill approach the education angle?

Wyden: In terms of science education, exciting the young people, the opportunities are huge. This is something that will really excite young people. I've made a big push at looking at the relationship between the shortage of women in science and Title IX. This could be the kind of field that will really involve them, it's one of the reasons we link the R&D and education sides, we'd like to have a big push there.

UPI: So it would be fair to say you'd want a significant portion of the funds you're talking about to be directed towards undergraduate and graduate grants?

Wyden: Absolutely, oh yeah.

Sen. Wyden also spoke to UPI after the hearing where the bill was introduced.

UPI: We seem to be getting into the nano equivalent of a space race, except this time it's not just two players; we've got Europe, Japan, China...

Wyden: (Hewlett-Packard's) comments about their frustrations with a key part of this -- the company-university relationship (in the U.S.) -- having a major company so frustrated they've gone to Russia to work on these issues is quite a commentary on the work we've done.

UPI: We do need to consider the fact that other countries are presenting this challenge, but what about the possibility we might get into the mindset of we just need to spend more than the other guy? What about the idea of spending smart as opposed to spending more?

Wyden: Yes, that's clearly what we're trying to convey in the legislation, the bill doesn't spend that much more (than before). To me, going to the question of these (business-academic) relationships, before you spend more, you've got to make sure you have a game plan and you're spending wisely the dollars that have been appropriated. I've commended the administration for not only NNI but the increase in funding.

UPI: If we can approach the (business-academic) situation in such a way as to free up some of the work that's already been done, how might that allow us to spend smarter?

Wyden: It would be very exciting to go back and look at some areas where the National Institutes of Health has done some work in the bio field. (Testimony at the hearing) said more needs to be done in terms of biology, and perhaps there may be some things that taxpayers have already put a significant amount of money into that even now we could build on with a new focus.

UPI: At the moment, we're at about the $600 million per year level in terms of overall nanotech funding. What would a reasonable pace be for increasing the funding levels over the next five years?

Wyden: I don't have a figure from the seat of my pants. A big part of this is going to involve how you handle the interdisciplinary questions in the physical sciences. A lot of what we can do here will have implications for the country beyond nanotechnology, and can be very positive. If we really get this right, we're going to have a (funding) model that is going to be of enormous benefit for the country in a variety of applications.

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