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Small Wonders, Endless Frontiers: A Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative
term research needs to be carefully considered. In the committee’s opinion, the current balance can and should be shifted more toward the longer term.
One reason for the committee’s concern is DOD’s FY 2002 and FY 2003 NNI budgets. While defense spending in nanoscale technology and research continues to rise, funding for basic research has declined below FY 2000 levels, in favor of applied research aimed at transitioning scientific discoveries into new technologies. The committee agrees with DOD’s desire to transition technologies into defense applications, but this should not occur at the expense of fundamental research. This is particularly true in light of the fact that DOD has been designated as the lead agency for the recently established Grand Challenge CBRE: Detection and Protection.
PROGRAM MANAGEMENT AND EVALUATION
NSET member agencies have done a much better job of encouraging federal partnerships with industry, universities, and local government than they have of encouraging meaningful interagency partnerships. As it examined NNI activities at the various agencies, the committee recognized the strong and unapologetic focus of agencies on their respective missions. Each agency’s response to and involvement in the NNI derives from its efforts to succeed in its mission. It is not inappropriate for federal agencies to focus on their own missions. Yet the breadth of NNI and its fields of interest—from new materials development to quantum computing and from cellular microbiology to national security—calls for agencies to cooperate more meaningfully in their nanoscale science and technology pursuits and to better leverage their investment for mutual benefit. While the NNI implementation plan lists major interagency collaborations, the committee has no sense that there is much common strategic planning in those areas, any significant interagency communication between researchers working in those areas, or any significant sharing of results before they are published in the open literature.
Those effective interagency partnerships that do exist can serve as an example for future partnerships. For example, a multiple agency partnership funded the conference Nanofabrication and Biosystems,2 which led to some of the intellectual ideas that are currently driving research at the intersection of nanosystems and biology. Conference organizers secured joint funding from the Engineering Foundation, NSF, the Office of Naval Research, DARPA, and NIH. A visionary program manager at NIH worked from inside that organization to ensure that almost every institute at NIH contributed to the conference, because he could envision how every institute could benefit from advances in nanotechnology. Another example of an effective multiagency partnership is the support of the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), a publicaccess synchrotron facility. While NSF supports the core facility, NIH supports MacCHESS, which is devoted to biological macromolecular crystallography. This dual support began in 1983.
There are many opportunities for the NSET to develop interagency partnerships that will enhance the rate of nanoscale science and technology innovations. For example, partnerships between NIH and NSET agencies involved in physical science and engineering could greatly accelerate the development of instrumentation and research tools for probing nanoscale biological phenomena and engineering and developing nanoscale devices based on biological systems. NSET member agencies should increase their willingness to participate in interagency cofunding of large programs such as instrumentation centers and groups of investigators working at the interfaces of disciplines such as biology, engineering, and the physical sciences. The committee also recommends that the agencies pay particular attention to the hiring of program directors with an interdisciplinary background or understanding.
The NNI is intended to be a coherent, government-wide effort to promote and accelerate the evolution of nanoscale science and technology through investments made by a federation of participating federal agencies. The success of the initiative to date is due in large part to the leadership of the NSF. Under this leadership, the NNI has organized the major research-sponsoring agencies into a coordinated body, the NSET, with regular meetings and information sharing. It has also attracted participation by other federal agencies that do not focus on research but that could advance their own missions by the applications anticipated from nanoscale science and technology.
NSET forms a solid foundation on which to build an NNI that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Nanofabrication and Biosystems, H.C. Hoch, L.W. Jelinski, and H. Craighead, eds. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1996.