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Small Wonders, Endless Frontiers: A Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative
lutionary work—work that engenders new paradigms in scientific thinking or fundamentally alters the boundaries between disciplines.
In the experience of the committee members, the current system of funding research proposals tends to favor evolutionary ideas and readily achieved research goals. With a limited pool of research dollars available, proposal review committees favor proposals with the greatest chance of achieving their goals within the funding period of the grant. In fact, early-career researchers often say that they cannot submit proposals for funding until they have already conducted enough experiments to have all but proved the expected result of the proposed investigation—which, of course, they do not have the funding to do.
The NNI has set aside some funds for truly exploratory research—for example, NSF has awarded modest (up to $100,000), 1-year Nanoscale Exploratory Research grants for proof of concept for early-stage ideas. However, the number of these grants is quite limited relative to the potential for fundamental breakthroughs in nanoscale work. The committee recommends that additional high-risk exploratory research should be supported through the NNI.
Short-Term vs. Long-Term Funding
As discussed throughout this report, realizing the potential of nanoscale science and engineering breakthroughs requires meeting several challenges. Establishing and nurturing a robust interdisciplinary culture in science and engineering is critical. Funding truly revolutionary and high-risk research is also necessary. Neither of these challenges can be met without a long-term commitment.
The interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches that are essential for the success of NNI long-term objectives are already in place in some industrial labs. However, they are relatively new to universities and to many of the key funding agencies that support university work. It will therefore be necessary to encourage universities to nurture groups that combine the knowledge from disciplines such as biology, medicine, chemistry, physics, materials science, computer science, and engineering. It will also be important to develop realistic milestones as desirable goals for proposals. For example, although components (such as a transistor) have been shown to be scalable down to atomic dimensions, the integration of these molecular and nanocomponents into useful higher-order structures and devices is still a considerable technological challenge.
Reforms are required to create a scientific culture that better recognizes and rewards research at the interface of disciplines, particularly in universities. Successful fostering of interdisciplinary research groups is complex and difficult. Universities and their departments will have little incentive to begin this arduous process without the promise of support for their efforts for as long as it takes to achieve success. NSF-funded centers provide this incentive to some extent at the universities that host them, but mechanisms beyond centers are needed. Such a cultural transition is a complex undertaking that will take time, which implies the need for a commitment to sustained funding.
As for the funding agencies, a corresponding interdisciplinary knowledge base needs to be established in the program directorates with a long-term view. Also, there may be a need to change the perception that a long-term goal necessarily involves high risk. This may be particularly true for development of new nanomanufacturing processes, which may be technologically complex and difficult but which rest on a sound scientific base. Program directors will need knowledge and backgrounds that cross disciplines such as biology, materials science, and engineering. Only the most dedicated and visionary directors can tear down the barriers, quash the prejudice that exists, and provide the help and guidance their review panels and proposed referees need to make good choices and decisions.
As discussed above, the NSF Nanoscale Exploratory Research (NER) grant provides short-term funding for proof-of-concept for early-stage ideas. If an idea is truly revolutionary, however, or the technical problem being addressed is truly difficult, one year is often not long enough to produce results. Achieving the high-impact successes promised by nanoscale science and technology will require longer-term funding of extraordinarily challenging or revolutionary proposals, even though some proposals receiving such funding will inevitably fail to bear fruit. However, the breakthroughs achieved by even a few such projects can more than compensate for those projects that did not turn out as hoped.
The committee is not suggesting that successful short-term research efforts be abandoned. Indeed, some short-term successes, particularly developments that lead quickly to applications, can be key to garnering and maintaining public support for the initiative. However, the balance between short-term and long-