This report is the most recent triennial review by the National Research Council of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) as called for by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003. The overall objective of this review is to make recommendations to the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee and the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) that will improve the value of the NNI’s strategy and portfolio for basic research, applied research, and the development of applications to provide economic, societal, and national security benefits to the United States.
The NNI has a vision of the future in which nanoscience and nanotechnology enable economic and societal benefits.1 That vision and the current set of NNI goals are broad and encompass a host of activities and outcomes that support the nanotechnology “ecosystem” in the United States. In addition to NNI-related funded research and infrastructure, nonfederal activities are under way; for example, companies are investing in research and development, state and regional agencies are providing support, and standards bodies are developing new standards. Unlike such a program as the Human Genome Project, the NNI is not designed to accomplish a single clear goal. Moreover, the participating agencies allocate resources in accordance with their missions, not in a centralized or top-down manner. As a result, management of the NNI as a whole by the NSET Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Technology and
the NNCO has been limited primarily to coordination and information-sharing. Although that approach has led to a system that creates knowledge and educates future scientists and engineers, the request for the present report is a recognition that the NSET Subcommittee and the NNCO want to explore specific pathways to increase the value of the NNI to the nation and expedite progress toward economic and societal goals.
In assessing the three parts of the task statement—technology transfer and commercialization, metrics of progress toward goals, and overall management and coordination—the committee identified five crosscutting concepts that informed the recommendations offered in the chapters of this report and that can serve as approaches to enhancing the NNI.
First, it is essential to identify and support the members of the NNI nanotechnology community. Many researchers do not know that their projects are counted as part of the NNI. Program managers do not necessarily know what other agencies are funding. Businesses cannot readily find researchers who are working in fields of interest. To address those disconnects, the committee recommends that the NSET Subcommittee develop a public, up-to-date, searchable database of projects included in the NNI portfolio and make it available on the NNI website. The project database would include information on each activity, including project title; names of principal investigators, researchers, and students supported; funding agency and amount; affiliation with signature initiatives; and other information needed to identify research activities uniquely. Researchers funded under the NNI need to be informed that they are part of the community and also need information on the resources and programs available, such as notification of selection for funding. The NNI signature initiatives could benefit from identifying those involved and therefore responsible for meeting the cross-agency signature initiative goals. With respect to technology transfer and commercialization, the NNI should support events that bring together those making discoveries and those who have an interest in developing and commercializing the discoveries.
Second, strengthening NNI planning, management, and coordination can be enabled by developing and implementing interagency plans for focused areas—the signature initiatives and the working groups. Effective plans include goals, desired outcomes (from short term to long term), and models and actions that link investment, outputs, and short-term outcomes to ultimate long-term outcomes. The plans must also identify agency roles and responsibilities, milestones and metrics, and reasonable time frames. The NNI agencies have already identified signature initiatives as “ripe for expedited advancement” through such coordination, planning, and management. The working groups are similarly focused and could increase their effectiveness for the NNI community substantially through greater planning. The plans—and progress reports—would naturally be included in the NNI supplement to the President’s annual budget.
Third, the NNI website (www.nano.gov) needs to serve the various stakeholder groups—including researchers, small and large businesses, educators and students, and the mass media—better. The website is a repository of NNI reports and links to many agency resources. It also provides good introductory information about nanotechnology. However, it can be expanded and improved to be more service-oriented. For example, it can be a portal to NNI user facilities with a searchable database on publicly available facilities, capabilities, and equipment in the agencies; it can also provide clear guidance on technology transfer and commercialization, including worker safety and regulatory issues.
Fourth, the NSET Subcommittee, NNI agencies, and the NNCO need to take advantage of advances in technology and methods for data collection and social network analysis to develop and test specific metrics for assessing progress toward NNI goals and informing program management. Many of the metrics recommended in this report are based on data that are publicly available or may already be collected by the agencies. For example, starting with the information contained in the recommended searchable database of NNI projects, publications, patents, citations, students trained, and other information on NNI outputs can be collected and linked from other publicly available databases. The committee emphasizes the need for review, with domain experts, of those and other suggested metrics and the proposed models linking the metrics to desired NNI outcomes for collection and analysis of the data collected over at least 3 years to assess whether the metrics both reflect progress toward the desired outcomes and inform NNI management decisions in a cost-effective manner.
Fifth, the NNI would benefit from identifying, sharing, and implementing best practices, such as those described in this report, especially related to technology transfer and commercialization. The diversity of processes and agreements used by agencies, federal laboratories, and universities—and in some cases lack of flexibility—can be a barrier to transitioning research results to practical and commercial use, particularly by small companies and start-ups. In addition to more conventional pathways for transitioning research from universities and government laboratories to businesses, such as sponsored research and licensing, the NNI agencies could work together to partner with industry consortia to identify and address long-term research needs of sectors that have potential for high economic impact.
The NSET Subcommittee, the NNI agencies, and the NNCO are to be commended for their work and progress 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 be more effective and as a result more valuable to the nanotechnology community and the nation. The committee believes that the recommendations in this report will help the NNI to fulfill its goals and facilitate progress toward its vision.