The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) comprises the collective activities and investments of the participating agencies, coordinated through the efforts of the interagency Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology Subcommittee and with the support of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO). Since its inception in 2001, the number of participating agencies has grown to include 27 agencies with missions spanning from support for basic research to regulation of commercial products and activities. Today, the NNI participating agencies altogether invest ~$1.5 billion per year. The bulk of spending is in support of fundamental and applied research, including a number of shared use facilities.
As noted by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in 2014,1 the NNI not only needs to invest in research and discovery, it needs to focus on translating research results into commercial products. This study assesses NNI mechanisms to advance focused areas of nanotechnology toward advanced development and commercialization, with particular attention to advancing nanomanufacturing (Chapters 2 and 3) and the adequacy of the physical and human infrastructure (Chapters 4 and 5) to support not only research but also private sector innovation.
Nanotechnology, which encompasses nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, is multidisciplinary and has potential to improve existing products
1 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2014, Report to the President and Congress on the Fifth Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Executive Office of the President, October, https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast/docsreports.
or enable new ones in many sectors, including information and communication technology, energy, and medicine. The innovation process by which the results of NNI research transition into practical application is complex, involving numerous actors from the public and private spheres.
Finding 2.1: The federal government plays a significant role in discovery, applied research, and early-stage development; the private sector plays a dominant role in product development and commercialization. A challenge for nanotechnology, like other emerging technologies, is to bridge from research to practical application. There are federal programs that provide support for advancing ideas to a level that is more likely to attract private investment.
Recommendation 2.1: The Nanotechnology Innovation and Commercialization Ecosystem Working Group should identify federal programs that assist with transitioning early-stage concepts to more advanced technology readiness. The Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee, with support from the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, should inform the basic research community about these programs and also communicate to federal program managers about how investment in advancement of nano-enabled technologies can provide opportunities for achieving their program and agency missions.
The NNI established Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (NSIs) starting in fiscal year (FY) 2013 with the goal of focusing on technology areas of national importance that may be more rapidly advanced through enhanced interagency coordination and collaboration. There are currently five NSIs, including one announced in 2016—Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology. The NSI statements of need and opportunity make clear the potential benefits from advances in nanotechnology in each area. The roles and responsibilities of the NNI participating agencies in achieving the stated NSI objectives are not as clear.
Finding 2.2: Without a plan that has clear targets, goals, and metrics to measure progress, as well as indication of responsible agencies, funding for NSI topics will be more difficult to secure within the NNI agencies and advances will be more serendipitous and less assured.
Recommendation 2.2: Agencies participating in each Nanotechnology Signature Initiative (NSI) should develop a joint strategic plan with roadmaps and interim and end-result goals. The plans should include goals related to facilitating commercialization of research related to the topic of the NSI.
Nanotechnology-inspired grand challenges are a newer mechanism being employed by the NNI to focus on areas of high impact and technical opportunity. As noted in the announcement of the Grand Challenge for Future Computing,2 achieving the grand challenge will depend on advancements in areas other than nanotechnology and in other government initiatives. Conversely, progress toward the grand challenge also supports advances toward the objectives of those other initiatives. This interdependency applies to the NNI as a whole.
Finding 2.3: The NNI is investing in technology areas that are critical to the goals of other federal initiatives and vice versa. The various initiative leaders and managers both inside and outside of the NNI may not have the entire expertise or programmatic influence or control to efficiently achieve their respective initiative goals.
Recommendation 2.3: The Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee should strengthen engagement with the leadership of other high-priority initiatives in order to determine critical nano-enabled technological dependencies. The subcommittee then should focus NNI efforts to address those dependencies.
There are additional mechanisms for focusing efforts that are available to the NNI. Innovation incentive prizes are an approach that can draw attention to a technical challenge and tap into a community of innovators who may not currently be participating in addressing problems of interest to the federal government.
Finding 2.4: XPrize, InnoCentive, and other organizations have well-developed, proven strategies for managing innovation incentive prize competitions using cash awards and well-defined procedures to engage a diverse array of people and organizations, stimulate additional spending, and produce results.
Recommendation 2.4: NNI agencies should use innovation incentive prizes to engage a broader community to solve technical problems, particularly those underlying grand challenges and other national initiatives. NNI agencies can offer prizes directly, or work through existing organizations.
Transitioning nanotechnology research results into commercial products requires the ability to reliably manufacture with nanoscale precision and control
2 L. Whitman, R. Bryant, and T. Kalil, 2015, “A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing,” blog, Office of Science and Technology Policy, October 20, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/10/15/nanotechnology-inspired-grand-challenge-future-computing.
and at an acceptable cost. Since the NNI was established, nanomanufacturing has been recognized as essential to realizing economic benefits from the investment in nanotechnology research and development. Given its importance, the committee felt it was a focus area that warranted closer study.
Finding 3.1: Budget figures in support of nanomanufacturing as reported in the NNI supplements to the President’s budget have been inconsistent, and progress made toward recommendations of the 2007 National Science and Technology Council report Manufacturing at the Nanoscale: Report of the NNI Workshops 2002-20043 is not clear.
Recommendation 3.1: The Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee should prepare a report that provides a self-consistent record of the NNI nanomanufacturing program, the status relative to the recommendations of the 2007 National Science and Technology Council report Manufacturing at the Nanoscale: Report of the NNI Workshops 2002-2004, and the NNI plans to move forward.
Finding 3.2: Basic research programs focused on nanomanufacturing have been a strength of the NNI. NSF centers focused on nanomanufacturing have more adequate budgets for facilities and education than do single investigators who have smaller awards. Ending support for nanomanufacturing centers will lead to a decrease in coordinated education and facility efforts.
Recommendation 3.2: The National Science Foundation should find ways to continue some nanomanufacturing center-scale efforts. Such centers might be explicitly tasked to pursue early-stage research in support of advanced manufacturing programs, such as the Manufacturing Innovation Institutes.
The federal government has launched a substantial effort aimed at stimulating and supporting advanced manufacturing. A number of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes (MIIs) focused on various sectors have been established. In addition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Advanced Manufacturing Consortia Program (AMTech) is funding planning activities to establish new, or strengthen existing, industry-driven consortia that address high-priority research challenges impeding the growth of advanced manufacturing. The MIIs are focused primarily at bridging the gap between research and commercialization. Connections
between the NNI and advanced manufacturing programs such as the MII program and AMTech can accelerate progress toward the goals of those programs.
Finding 3.3: In many cases, progress or success in the MIIs and in implementation of the roadmaps developed under the AMTech program will require advances in nanomanufacturing.
Recommendation 3.3a: NNI-participating agencies should explicitly support the early-stage (technology readiness level 1-3) nanomanufacturing research needed to enable the roadmaps and goals of current advanced manufacturing programs, in particular the existing Manufacturing Innovation Institutes.
Recommendation 3.3b: The Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee should form a nanomanufacturing working group to identify nanoscale research needs of advanced manufacturing, coordinate efforts between the NNI and the federal programs focused on advanced manufacture, and foster greater investment by those programs in nano-enabled technologies.
Finding 3.4: Nanomedicine manufacturing is an essential step in realizing the benefits of the considerable investment in nanomedicine research under the NNI. Nanomedicine manufacturing poses a number of specific challenges that are not being met by other NNI manufacturing efforts. Two reports—the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cancer Nanotechnology Plan 2015 and the PCAST Report to the President and Congress on the Fifth Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (Appendix II—Manufacturing Nanomedicine)—provide a sound basis for NNI focus on this topic.
Recommendation 3.4: The National Institutes of Health should lead the development of a roadmap, in collaboration with the nanomedicine industry, to identify technical barriers to scaling up the manufacture of nanomedicines, as well as areas in which research is needed to overcome those barriers.
Together the NNI agencies have created a geographically distributed set of user facilities that provides the broad nanoscale science and engineering community access to a range of characterization and synthesis tools and facilities. In addition, computational tools for nanoscale modeling and simulation have been developed and are made publicly available (e.g., via nanoHUB). The NNI investment in this physical infrastructure has been a cornerstone of supporting nanotechnology research and development in the United States. While the facilities serve thousands of users annually, there are many who could benefit but are not aware that this infrastructure can help address their needs.
Finding 4.1: The NNI agencies fund a substantial set of facilities that support experimental, computational, and educational activities and users from academia, industry, and government. While information about each facility or center is available on the NNI website, there is little evidence of coordination among the agencies to facilitate access and use by the community at large.
Recommendation 4.1: User facilities should strive to better serve the collective nanoscience research community by (1) sharing—perhaps via a central web-based portal—training materials and simulation and computational tools developed at the individual user facilities, and (2) creating a common proposal form and process that facilitate users moving between facilities to access the more expensive or specialized instrumentation.
The NNI investment in establishing this physical infrastructure has been substantial. However, there does not appear to be planning for sustainment.
Finding 4.2: There is a clear lack of identified funds for the development of new leading-edge instrumentation or recapitalization of commercial tools at NNI-sponsored user facilities, with the exception of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology. As a result, there is a real risk of obsolescence of the physical and computation infrastructure available to the nanoscience and technology research enterprise, and a corresponding decrease in the user value.
Recommendation 4.2: The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, in concert with other NNI agencies with instrumentation programs, should identify funding mechanisms for acquiring and maintaining state-of-the-art equipment and computational resources to sustain leading-edge capabilities at their nanoscale science and engineering user facilities.
Nanotechnology for medicine and other applications that involve contact with the body or the environment are increasing. The refreshed NSF network of user facilities, the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure, has expanded capabilities in support of nanobiology research. However, there is a growing need for tools and tests to characterize the safety of nanomaterials. The NCI Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL) is a successful model for the early assessment of nanomaterials.
Finding 4.3: The NCL serves as a trusted source of information on the safety of nanomaterials being developed for cancer and has facilitated Food and Drug Administration assessment. However, there is a lack of centralized facilities for addressing other areas of nanomedicine and nanobiotechnology.
Recommendation 4.3a: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) should assess what emerging medical applications, in addition to cancer diagnostics and treatment, rely on engineered nanomaterials. NIH should expand the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory to address nanomaterials being developed for those other medical applications.
Recommendation 4.3b: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Environmental Protection Agency should join with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to support development of centralized nanobiotechnological characterization facilities, at the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory or elsewhere, to serve as a trusted source of information on potential environmental, health, and safety implications of nanomaterials.
Increasing the pipeline of undergraduates with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education that includes nanoscale science/engineering is also important to the health of the nation’s high technology economy and is particularly vital to supporting the defense and government sectors.
Finding 5.1: There are existing programs at many of the NNI-participating agencies that support STEM undergraduate students. The NNI could take better advantage of these programs toward achieving the NNI Goal 3, thereby augmenting nanoscale science and engineering education without the need for additional resources.
Recommendation 5.1: The Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee, working with the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, should gather from the NNI participating agencies information about their programs that support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics undergraduate students, identify opportunities for increasing the fraction of such program funds going to students engaged in nanotechnology-related activities, and publicize those programs on the NNI website.
As nanotechnology matures and at the same time is incorporated into traditional disciplines, the teaching of nano-related concepts will be incorporated into education at lower levels, including K-12. Development of education materials suited to younger students is the subject of a number of programs within and outside the NNI. In particular, the Commonwealth of Virginia has added nanotechnology to its standard K-12 curriculum.
Finding 5.2: A variety of approaches to incorporate nanoscale science and engineering in the K-12 education pipeline are being developed and implemented by entities both inside and outside the NNI. Educators and government education policy makers can learn from these programs and scale-up the more successful ones.
Recommendation 5.2a: The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, working with the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, should engage with states that have incorporated nanotechnology into the K-12 curriculum to develop a document outlining the approaches taken and make it widely available, including to individuals or groups seeking to improve K-12 science education in other states.
Recommendation 5.2b: The National Science Foundation and the Department of Education should work with states that have incorporated nanotechnology into the K-12 curriculum to identify metrics and track the outcomes of the approach taken by those states to include nanotechnology in the K-12 curriculum.
Finding 5.3: The NNI has funded the development of a diversity of formal and informal educational materials suitable for various levels and ages. Nanotechnology-focused educational programs at universities around the country, some of which have received substantial state funding, also are developing materials for K-12 students and teachers.
Recommendation 5.3: NNI-funded researchers and others who have developed educational materials should be required to deposit the information content on the nanoHUB website, and to explore affordable commercial availability for laboratory and classroom demonstration materials.
In summary, the NNI, including the interagency bodies and the NNCO, continues to add value to the portfolio of activities across participating agencies. Looking ahead, the NNI can significantly increase that value by focusing on research that will enable progress and success in other advanced technology areas of priority, especially advanced manufacturing. At the same time, the NNI agencies are called on to sustain investment in and facilitate access to physical infrastructure and to take steps to realize the full value of educational materials and programs. In the course of identifying targeted areas in which to focus, NNI agencies have the opportunity to consider the goals of the initiative and the criteria for continuing to invest resources in its coordination and management.