The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is a multiagency, multidisciplinary federal initiative comprising a collection of research programs and other activities funded by the participating agencies and linked by the vision of “a future in which the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale leads to a revolution in technology and industry that benefits society.”1 As first stated in the 2004 NNI strategic plan, the participating agencies intend to make progress in realizing that vision by working toward four goals (Box S.1).
Planning, coordination, and management of the NNI are carried out by the interagency Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on Technology (CoT) with support from the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO). The NSET Subcommittee has established four topical working groups, which, along with the relationships of the above interagency bodies, are indicated in Figure S.1.
The NNI itself is described as follows on the nano.gov webpage:
NNI today consists of the individual and cooperative nanotechnology-related activities of 26 Federal agencies with a range of research and regulatory roles and responsibilities. Fifteen of the participating agencies have research and development (R&D) budgets that relate to nanotechnology, with the reported NNI budget representing the collective sum of these investments. Funding support for nanotechnology R&D stems directly from NNI
member agencies, not the NNI. As an interagency effort, the NNI informs and influences the Federal budget and planning processes through its member agencies and through the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The NNI brings together the expertise needed to advance this broad and complex field—creating a framework for shared goals, priorities, and strategies that helps each participating Federal agency leverage the resources of all participating agencies. With the support of the NNI, nanotechnology R&D is taking place in academic, government, and industry laboratories across the United States.
The Four National Nanotechnology Initiative Goals
1. Advance world-class nanotechnology research and development.
2. Foster the transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public benefit.
3. Develop and sustain educational resources, a skilled workforce, and the supporting infrastructure and tools to advance nanotechnology.
4. Support the responsible development of nanotechnology.
SOURCE: See http://www.nano.gov/about-nni/what/vision-goals, accessed on January 9, 2013.
This report is the latest National Research Council review of the NNI, an assessment called for by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003. The overall objective of the review is to make recommendations to the NSET Subcommittee and the NNCO that will improve the NNI’s value for basic and applied research and for development of applications in nanotechnology that will provide economic, societal, and national security benefits to the United States. (Box S.2 gives the abbreviated task in the charge for the Committee on Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.) In its assessment, the committee found it important to understand in some detail—and to describe in its report—the NNI’s structure and organization (Chapter 1); how the NNI fits within the larger federal research enterprise, as well as how it can and should be organized for management purposes (Chapter 2); and the initiative’s various stakeholders and their roles with respect to research (Chapter 3). Because technology transfer, one of the four NNI goals (see Box S.1), is dependent on management and coordination, the committee chose to address the topic of technology transfer last (Chapter 6), following its discussion of definitions of success and metrics for assessing progress toward achieving the four goals (Chapter 4) and management and coordination (Chapter 5). Addressing its tasks in this order would, the committee hoped, better reflect the logic of its approach to review of the NNI. Concluding remarks are provided in Chapter 7.
Tasks in the Charge to the Committee
The charge to the committee, and the sections in which each topic is addressed, are as follows:
1. Examine the role of the NNI in maximizing opportunities to transfer selected technologies to the private sector, provide an assessment of how well the NNI is carrying out this role, and suggest new mechanisms to foster transfer of technologies and improvements to NNI operations in this area where warranted. (Chapter 6)
2. Assess the suitability of current procedures and criteria for determining progress towards NNI goals, suggest definitions of success and associated metrics, and provide advice on those organizations (government or non-government) that could perform evaluations of progress. (Chapter 4 and the committee’s interim report,1 reprinted in Appendix E)
3. Review NNI’s management and coordination of nanotechnology research across both civilian and military federal agencies. (Chapter 5)
1 National Research Council, Interim Report for the Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Phase II, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2012 (reprinted in Appendix E).
In addressing the three tasks, the committee found a number of topics that were crosscutting and that are reflected in its recommendations with strong overlap and similarity (e.g., the importance of collecting and making certain information available on the Web). The committee considered that these crosscutting topics and the aspects of its recommendations that are overlapping represent the areas and actions that are of highest priority for the success of the NNI going forward. Below the committee distills these five topics and summarizes elements that its recommendations have in common. (The related full recommendations are presented later in this Summary and also in the report chapters in which they are developed.) The recommendations highlighted here are those the committee considered the most important. Additional recommendations are offered in the main text of the report.
The five crosscutting topics identified by the committee in addressing its statement of task are as follows:
• First, the lack of information at the project level on who is performing research, where, and on what has many implications. The nanotechnology community is not as cohesive as it could be, leading to a loss of potential benefits and value of the NNI investment. Researchers do not necessarily know they are part of the NNI, what its goals are, and who else it supports. As a result, they may not know of related research activity that could be of use to their own research and may not be fully aware of NNI-funded user facilities, networks, and other programs that are available. In addition, program managers do not necessarily know what other agencies are funding and, therefore, are not able to benefit from other government spending. Businesses do not have a central place where they can find researchers who are working in fields of interest.
• Second, planning, management, and coordination can be enhanced by developing and implementing interagency plans for focused areas, i.e., the signature initiatives and the working groups. Effective plans usually have clearly laid out goals, desired outcomes, and models and actions linking investment, outputs, and short-term outcomes to long-term outcomes. Effective plans also clearly identify roles and responsibilities, milestones and metrics, and reasonable time frames.
• Third, a website (such as nano.gov) has to effectively serve all the various stakeholder groups, including researchers, small and large businesses, investors, educators and students, and the media.
• Fourth, current advances in technology and methods—for example, for data collection and social network analysis—can be used effectively to develop and test metrics for assessing progress toward goals and for informing program leadership.
• Fifth, there are benefits from identifying, sharing, and implementing best practices, such as those described in this report, especially relating to technology transfer and commercialization. Too great a diversity of processes and agreements, and in some cases an associated lack of flexibility, can be a barrier to transitioning research results to commercial use. In addition to more conventional pathways for transitioning research from universities and government laboratories to businesses, partnerships with industry consortia, e.g., under the proposed AMTech or National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, can add new pathways.
The committee recognizes that a broad interagency initiative such as the NNI is managed differently from a program within a single agency. Critically, the NNI does not have a separate program budget, and the NSET Subcommittee and NNCO do not have budgetary authority—instead the funding for NNI research is part of the budgeting and program management within the agencies participating in the NNI. Funding allocations are made within the participating agencies according to their respective missions and how they see nanotechnology fitting within their agency. The NNCO budget is approved by the NSET Subcommittee and funded by agency contributions that are prorated according to the agencies’ respective NNI budgets. The challenge, then, is for the NNI to develop, implement, and track targeted goals, metrics, and processes that allow participating agencies to maximize the return on their individual investments, while also maximizing the collective return to U.S. taxpayers and the nation.
Many aspects of the NNI and the activities of the federal agencies involved are to be commended and are even exemplary among federal initiatives. The NNI has successfully engaged agencies from across the government, including not only research agencies but also those with regulatory and other responsibilities (e.g., the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission) that are relevant to maximizing benefits from advances in nanotechnology while managing risks.
Equally noteworthy is the NNI’s impact beyond the federal government. The NNI has sparked investment by states, universities, businesses, venture capital, and other nations worldwide.2 Examples of state-funded university-based initiatives include those of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany, New York (http://cnse.albany.edu/Home.aspx), and the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, a collaboration between North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (http://www.gatewayurp.com/
2 For a listing of the many state-led efforts, see National Nanotechnology Initiative, “Regional, State, and Local (RSL) Nanotechnology Initiatives and Resources,” available at http://www.nano.gov/initiatives/commercial/state-local, accessed September 25, 2012.
JSNN.html). Although private-sector investment and activity are difficult to quantify, there exists today a diverse and growing nanotechnology ecosystem comprising many stakeholder groups beyond the federal government and the researchers supported by NNI funding. Nevertheless, there are opportunities to substantially strengthen the initiative and increase its impact.
DEFINITIONS OF SUCCESS AND METRICS OF PROGRESS TOWARD ACHIEVING NNI GOALS
Key to determining progress in any initiative is having an explicit framework that links desired goals and specific long-term outcomes (e.g., the definitions of success) to investment (funding and other resources), implementation plans, actions, outputs, and short-term outcomes that can be measured and evaluated (metrics). The current practice of periodic strategic planning and reporting represents only some of the framework elements. That is, the NNI reports annually on budgets and expenditures by agency and subject-based program component areas and obtains anecdotal evidence of activity and accomplishments, some of them interagency, related to each of the four NNI goals (see Box S.1). The general lack of quantifiable targets or detail in these reports or from other NNI-wide sources (e.g., the NNI website) made it difficult for the committee to link what is reported to measurable progress toward realizing the NNI goals.
The interim report prepared by the committee for this study provided suggestions for definitions of success in meeting the current NNI goals.3 Some examples from the 24 definitions in that report are as follows:
• The frontiers of knowledge are being substantially advanced, commensurate with the scale of funding.
• An appropriate scientific and technical workforce is being trained and educated in the United States.
• Vibrant, competitive, and sustainable industry sectors are being developed in the United States that use nanotechnology to enable the creation of new products, skilled employment, and economic growth.
• Rates of use are high for infrastructure that meets users’ technical needs.
• Businesses of all sizes are aware of potential risks of nanomaterials and know where to obtain current information about the properties of and best practices for handling such materials.
3 National Research Council, Interim Report for the Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Phase II, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2012 (reprinted in Appendix E).
Despite their appropriateness, the definitions suggested in the committee’s interim report are not all equally suited as targets against which progress can be measured, nor are the data for quantifying progress toward each equally easy to gather.
In addition to definitions of success, the committee’s interim report included more than 20 possible metrics of progress toward achieving the four NNI goals, including, for example, “number of publications based on NNI-funded R&D, with analysis of authorship to assess the share that is multidisciplinary, multidepartmental, multiuniversity, multinational, and multisectoral (for example, academe-industry or academe-government)” (p. 162 in Appendix E) and “use of current infrastructure, according to numbers and types of users, and the outcomes of use of the infrastructure” (p. 167).
Yet lists of definitions of success and metrics of progress are not sufficient. The NNI needs a framework that links the high-level goals with specific actions, outputs, and outcomes that are measurable.
Recommendation S-1 (2-1): An overarching definition of success for the NNI as a federal initiative should be evidence that NNI agencies are establishing and implementing an effective, explicit framework for planning, managing, and coordinating publicly identified NNI interagency programs, such as the signature initiatives. Such a framework should be based on essential performance-management concepts, and plans for and progress toward specific outcomes should be reported annually in the NNI supplement to the President’s budget.
Having a framework is only a first step in developing and implementing metrics; data are also required. With the NNI goals and proposed definitions of success in mind, the committee identified specific data sets to which various metrics reflecting national-level priorities could be applied.
Recommendation S-2 (4-1): Nine searchable data sets (listed in abbreviated form below) should be collected annually and made available on the NNI website to allow the NNI’s impacts and successes to be assessed by internal and external interested parties and used for resource allocation and planning.
1. NNI-funded projects, including such information as researcher name and affiliation, funding agency and amount, and abstract.
2. Published documents arising from NNI activities.
3. Data related to impact, including frequently cited and downloaded papers and patents, invited presentations, special sessions at conferences, and reports in the mass media.
4. Number of students supported.
5. User facility and network use.
6. Data related to technology transfer, including details of meetings, workshops, conferences, and sessions in conferences.
7. Data related to education and outreach, including workshops, activities aimed at K-12 students, and museum exhibits.
8. U.S.-based nanotechnology job advertisements.
9. NNI-related communications about environmental, health, safety, and societal implications of nanotechnology, such as guidance from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) regarding nanomaterials in the workplace.
For a full description of each data set, see Chapter 4.
Of these data sets, the first is the most critical and has the highest priority: knowing nanotechnology R&D projects, people, and organizations funded within the NNI will allow connections to be tracked over time from science to commercialization. Collecting and analyzing the data sets will require expertise and resources. To go from the data sets to metrics of progress toward selected definitions of success will require careful analysis and the development of proper models. Recognizing the variable and potentially significant cost associated with collecting the proposed data sets, the committee believes that the NSET Subcommittee and the NNI agencies are in the best position to identify an efficient and workable manner in which to collect the data, with priority given to the first data set. In addition, although it is beyond the committee’s task and expertise to address the details of how this recommendation can be carried out and funded, it is understood that the task is quite substantial.
Recommendation S-3 (4-2): The NSET Subcommittee and the NNCO should obtain data-mining expertise to undertake the collection and collation of essential data sets, develop tools to analyze the data in accordance with the management and reporting needs of the NNCO and the agencies, and manage the process of making the data sets publicly available.
The committee notes that creating perfect data sets for assessing and managing the NNI is neither reasonable nor possible. The NNI is a large organization, and the data sets will probably be incomplete, although it can be expected that they will improve with time. Any commentary based on the data, metrics, and interpretations should acknowledge the known limitations.
Research on metrics is evolving quickly with the development and application of “big data” tools. It will be important to link databases; one useful way to do that is by unambiguously identifying the scientists involved and associating them with research results and outcomes.
Recommendation S-4 (4-4): NNI agencies should record NNI participants and link them to their work products and organizations by individual grants, using Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID), and link these data to published paper and patent databases, which over time may be linked to social and economic outcomes.
MANAGEMENT AND COORDINATION
Management and coordination of the NNI have emphasized the sharing of information among participating agencies, development of strategic plans with broad goals, annual reports that include agency spending (planned and actual), and joint support of the NNI website, workshops, and other activities aimed primarily at nonresearch goals (such as support of regional, state, and local nanotechnology efforts) through the NNCO. Recently, the NNI created signature initiatives to promote coordination in targeted fields. Those management and coordination activities, some of which are required by law, are driven by the NSET Subcommittee and its working groups. The committee recommends steps that can increase interagency collaboration and progress toward the NNI goals.
Updating Interagency Management at All Levels
The four working groups (see Figure S.1) cover subjects that could benefit from greater interagency focus and coordination. Regarding the task of bringing together appropriate agency experts on such topics as global issues and environment and health implications, the effectiveness of the groups appears uneven. Although a description of the overarching purpose of each group is available on the NNI website, except in the case of Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications the committee was not able to determine what specific needs are addressed, what their priorities are, and what each group is planning and has accomplished.
The NNI and the global nanotechnology landscape have evolved since the working groups were established, and it is now both timely and important for the NSET Subcommittee to re-evaluate and, if appropriate, rebalance the working-group portfolio. There appears to be substantial opportunity to revise the roles of existing working groups or to create new working groups on user facility oversight and coordination, on education and workforce development, and perhaps in the future on other topics as well.
Recommendation S-5 (5-3): The NSET Subcommittee should regularly assess the working groups to ensure that each is serving a useful management and coordination role related to the goals and objectives of the NNI strategic plan. Working groups that are no longer useful should be redefined or eliminated,
and new working groups should be formed as needed. In particular, the NSET Subcommittee should consider creating new groups in the areas of user facility oversight and coordination and education and workforce development.
Recommendation S-6 (5-4): Each working group should address specific goals and objectives and should develop and annually update plans for outputs and short-term outcomes that are related to longer-term outcomes. Ties to signature initiatives should be highlighted. The NNI annual report should include working group plans, such as information about annual objectives, activities, management, and accomplishments.
The human resources committed by the participating agencies are substantial, but there are concerns that interagency involvement does not extend to sufficiently high levels of the administration to inform budget decision making. The committee recognizes that there may be a trade-off between authority in the agencies and the ability to devote time and effort to the many NNI coordinating activities.
Recommendation S-7 (5-5): To improve engagement by senior NNI participating-agency officials and decision makers, the NSET Subcommittee should inform and obtain input from the NSTC Committee on Technology on NNI objectives and plans at least annually.
Strengthening Information Management and Communication
Acquisition and sharing of information are vital to the success of any enterprise as diverse, interdisciplinary, and complex as the NNI, but they also pose a challenge. Communications could increase the impact of the NNI by increasing general awareness of emerging nanotechnologies, by encouraging students to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields related to nanotechnology so that an educated workforce can be developed, and by educating the public on environmental, health, and safety issues and other issues related to nanotechnology. Those activities necessarily cover a wide set of audiences, from K-12 students and teachers through academic and business circles to the general population. The communication tools need to be appropriate for the intended audience.
The NNI website is a primary vehicle for managing and sharing a variety of information. It provides introductory material on nanotechnology aimed at all ages and contains links to NNI reports, workshop announcements, research centers and user facilities, and funding opportunities. However, the committee believes that the NSET Subcommittee and the NNCO can and should make two important improvements. First, organizing the website to provide portals and
paths designed to guide specific groups of stakeholders (such as educators, small businesses, local governments, and nongovernment organizations) to resources would improve NNI communication substantially. Second, the website could offer a highly interactive and easily searchable dashboard that integrates information across agency-centric content. For example, it could serve as a central resource for all the relevant centers and facilities that would enable potential users to identify the instruments, capabilities, and expertise in each facility and center and would provide links for accessing them. It also could host the project-related data called for by the present report. Such a searchable database would allow all stakeholders to identify projects of interest, the participants involved, and the agencies funding the work. It would also aid agency program managers in becoming cognizant of related programs and investments by other agencies and thereby enhance the NNI’s management and coordination capabilities.
Recommendation S-8 (5-7): The NNI website (www.nano.gov) should be redesigned and its content organized to provide portals and guidance directed to the NNI stakeholder communities (industry, facilities, users, educators, mass media, and so on). The information should be appropriately integrated across the participating NNI agencies.
Advancing Signature Initiatives
In the annual report that accompanied the 2011 budget, the NNI announced signature initiatives aimed at developing technology in key fields in which focused and closely coordinated research and development (R&D) among agencies could lead to rapid advances. Whereas the breadth of NNI R&D and the diversity of agency missions and needs make it impractical and in some cases unhelpful for the NSET Subcommittee to manage and coordinate the entire portfolio of activities in support of NNI goals, the signature initiatives offer clear opportunities and pathways for accelerating progress in targeted subjects. The current signature initiatives are as follows:
• Nanotechnology for Solar Energy Collection and Conversion: Contributing to Energy Solutions for the Future;
• Sustainable Nanomanufacturing: Creating the Industries of the Future;
• Nanoelectronics for 2020 and Beyond;
• Nanotechnology Knowledge Infrastructure (NKI): Enabling National Leadership in Sustainable Design; and
• Nanotechnology for Sensors and Sensors for Nanotechnology: Improving and Protecting Health, Safety, and the Environment.
For each signature initiative, a white paper outlines the need that is addressed, the focus topics in which research is needed, expected outcomes, and relevant agency expertise. In some cases, there are quantifiable technical targets, but the white papers include no plans for making or assessing joint progress toward the expected, and presumably desired, outcomes.
Recommendation S-9 (5-1): Each signature initiative team should develop a strategic plan. The NSET Subcommittee and the signature initiative teams should expand the associated white papers to include specific goals (outcomes) with quantifiable technical targets where possible, milestones for reaching them, expected outputs and short-term outcomes, and roles and responsibilities of the (two or more) participating agencies, the NSET Subcommittee, and the NNCO. Planned actions and outputs and short-term outcomes to document progress should be reported online and in the annual report.
Each signature initiative, if successful, has the potential for considerable economic impact. Translating efficiently from research to technology solutions can be expedited by engaging with industry to identify goals and pathways for reaching them. An example of such direction setting is the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors. The fundamental elements of a roadmap need not be specific to a particular technology but should reflect recognition that the entities in the relevant industries need to come together and share information—something that not all industries have experienced in the past. The federal government can encourage industry members to collaborate on developing a roadmap.
The proposed Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortium program (AMTech) is intended to stimulate early-stage technology development based on industry needs by incentivizing industry-led consortia (new or existing) that would support long-term basic and applied research on enabling technologies. AMTech also provides grants to consortia to develop roadmaps of critical long-term industry research needs. The NSET Subcommittee could expand efforts that encourage industry consortia to plan and fund long-term research, using programs similar to AMTech.
Recommendation S-10 (5-6): The NSET Subcommittee should incentivize groups in nanotechnology-enabled industries to participate in developing roadmaps and in partnering to address long-term research needs. Roadmapping would be especially helpful in realizing progress in the signature initiatives.
Exemplary models of management and coordination with robust planning and strong engagement among participants include the National Institutes of
Health cancer nanotechnology research program and the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative. The former is led and managed by the National Cancer Institute and the latter by a consortium of semiconductor companies in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
The path from NNI-related funded research to practical application and commercialization can be long and complex. It involves actors in the private sector that use the results of NNI-related research but might not be integrated into the initiative. The NNI can help by removing barriers to private-sector access to and use of research results and infrastructure.
Current NNI activities aimed at technology transfer include holding workshops focused on regional nanotechnology economic development efforts and tracking and reporting Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) spending levels. Relevant NNI agencies—such as NIST, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration—are involved in standards development at the national and international level. NNI reports include anecdotal evidence of research that has been incorporated into products, but little is known about where students go after graduation or about whether and what kinds of barriers stand in the way of nanotechnology commercialization. The data sets called for in the present report include information related to workforce and technology-transfer activities.
One reason that the NNI does not focus more resources on technology transfer may be that, aside from its novelty and the fact that there is little in the way of standards and regulatory certainty, nanotechnologies are not unusual in the challenges and obstacles faced in the movement of discoveries from the laboratory into application and use. Therefore, agencies rely on existing technology-transfer tools and processes—for example, cooperative research and development agreements between nongovernment and government entities, SBIR and STTR programs, and newer programs, such as NSF’s I-Corps.
Ways in which the NNI can provide support for technology transfer include
• Easing access by businesses, especially small businesses, to user facilities and other resources by promoting widespread adoption of uniform best practices and intellectual-property terms and conditions;
• Continuing support of sound standards development, especially at the international level; and
• Revising the website to improve access to information related to commercialization, such as NIOSH guidance and relevant regulations.
Recommendation S-11 (6-4): Each NNI agency should identify best practices in intellectual property management and transfer those practices that were developed by it or by other institutions and then share among all agencies the recommended templates and guidelines for such best practices.
The NSET Subcommittee, NNI agencies, and the NNCO are to be commended for their work and progress to date in coordinating such a diverse multiagency program. The NNI has been a leader among interagency initiatives in many ways. Now it has an opportunity to make the initiative more effective and as a result more valuable to the nanotechnology community and the nation. Taking action to implement the recommendations in this report will be a measurable next step, which the committee believes will help the initiative to better fulfill its goals and facilitate progress toward its vision. It is noted that the recommendations in this Summary are considered key recommendations but are only a subset of all the recommendations the committee made. For the full set of recommendations see Chapters 2 through 6 in this report.