Regulatory Developments

House Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Nanotechnology: From Laboratories to Commercial Products

May 21, 2014

The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a hearing on May 20, 2014, on "Nanotechnology: From Laboratories to Commercial Products." The purpose of the hearing was to examine the current state of nanotechnology research and development (R&D), as well as future opportunities and challenges. In addition, the hearing discussed policy issues surrounding nanotechnology applications and activities, federal funding levels for nanotechnology R&D, and key legislative initiatives, including the interagency National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The hearing charter is available online.

The Subcommittee heard testimony from the following witnesses, whose written statements are available online:

  • Dr. Timothy Persons, Chief Scientist, United States Government Accountability Office (GAO);
     
  • Dr. Lloyd Whitman, Interim Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and Deputy Director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, National Institute of Standards and Technology;
     
  • Dr. Keith Stevenson, Professor of Chemistry and Director, Center for Nano- and Molecular Science and Technology, The University of Texas at Austin;
     
  • Dr. Mark Hersam, Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, Northwestern University; and
     
  • Mr. Les Ivie, President and CEO, F Cubed, LLC.

Persons discussed the July 2013 Congressionally-requested forum held by GAO and the National Academies on specific issues in nanotechnology manufacturing. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology asked the GAO and the National Academies to convene the forum and elicit the views of a group of leading experts, including Lynn L. Bergeson, Managing Partner of Bergeson & Campbell, P.C. (B&C®). GAO released a February 2014 report entitled Nanomanufacturing: Emergence and Implications for U.S. Competitiveness, the Environment, and Human Health, which provides highlights from the hearing and is available online. Persons testified that, according to forum participants and experts interviewed, challenges to U.S. competitiveness in nanomanufacturing include U.S. funding gaps, significant global competition, and lack of a U.S. vision for nanomanufacturing. Persons described two support gaps that U.S. innovators may encounter, the "Valley of Death" (lack of funding or investment for the middle stages of developing a technology or product) and the "Missing Middle" (a similar lack of adequate support for the middle stages of developing a process or an approach to manufacture the new product at scale).

Whitman provided an overview of the NNI, which is not a distinctly funded "program" with a centralized budget. The NNI is coordinated through the National Science and Technology Council. It fosters coordination and collaboration across agencies, leverages funding and avoids duplication of efforts, and provides a framework by which agencies work towards common goals and objectives. Whitman testified that the NNI agencies continue to further the NNI's goals of: (1) advancing nanotechnology R&D; (2) fostering nanotechnology commercialization; (3) developing and maintaining the U.S. workforce and infrastructure; and (4) supporting the responsible and safe development of nanotechnology.

Stevenson described the success of the NNI, including its scientific and technological merits and broader societal and environmental impacts. According to Stevenson, the current federal deficit is the result of significant cuts to the federal investments in fundamental research and higher education at a time when other nations, including Europe, China, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Russia, have dramatically increased their investments in nanoscience and nanotechnology. As a result, the U.S. risks losing its competitive advantage in advancing fundamental knowledge; in the discovery of breakthrough materials; in the commercialization of innovative technologies, and in the scale-up and manufacturing of new products.

Hersam testified that nanoscience remains a fertile ground for discovery, and therefore a diversified federal funding portfolio that includes sustained support for fundamental research is critical to realize the full potential of nanotechnology. According to Hersam, expanding the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers and Nanosystems Engineering Research Centers would accelerate education and outreach. He urged Congress to reinstate the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), which provided a universal infrastructure for fundamental and applied research. Hersam stressed the need for sustained and predictable funding to support R&D. Hersam also testified about the delays in obtaining a nanotechnology patent, and stated that policies to improve the efficiency of the United States Patent and Trademark Office are critical for advancing and protecting nanotechnology commercialization.

Ivie discussed the importance of both federal and private funding, where federal funding supports university research and private funding supports entrepreneurs. According to Ivie, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs should include four-year and advanced degree programs, as well as two-year programs that have proven to be critical in the education of technicians who are able to operate the equipment and tools that produce nanotechnology devices. Ivie testified that revising the enabling language in the granting process could improve the licensing process, which is currently slow and costly. Finally, Ivie stated that additional regulations targeting nanomaterials are unnecessary. He suggested that a program such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Program could first determine whether nanotechnology waste streams are present in the environment.

When questioned by Congress, the witnesses agreed that without continued funding, the nanotechnology infrastructure developed to date is at risk. In addition, other initiatives building on the nanotechnology infrastructure will suffer. The witnesses also suggested ways to improve the transfer of technology to private industry and how to ensure the U.S. remains competitive. Hersam testified that, due to the delay in obtaining a nanotechnology patent, if a company is going to commercialize a product, it has to go to market before the patent is issued. Several witnesses discussed the importance of pre-competitive work as part of successful private-public partnerships.

Commentary

While resourcing investment in nanotechnology was not the primary purpose of the hearing, it was plainly a part of the narrative. Chances are this may not happen soon, giving way to the concerns expressed at the hearing regarding maintaining the U.S.'s competitive advantage over Europe, China, and other countries that have significantly stepped up investment in nanotechnology R&D and investment generally. As noted in the Hearing Charter, President Obama's fiscal year (FY) 2015 budget request for NNI across the participating agencies is $1,536.9 billion, a decrease from $1,550.2 billion spent in FY 2013 and $1,537.5 billion estimated to be spent this FY. The NNIN, which supports the infrastructure of the NNI, was authorized for only ten years, ending in FY 2013. Although the National Science Foundation (NSF) solicited proposals in 2013 to establish a Next-Generation NNIN to succeed the former program through FY 2018, NSF announced in April that it would not fund either of the two proposals it received. All witnesses urged continuing funding, and expressed concern with the consequences of failure to maintain funding. In a perfect world, increased funding would be ideal, but it is by no means clear this is in the works. In fact, Congress has struggled to reauthorize the NNI. Subcommittee Chair Larry Bucshon (R-IN) noted in his opening statement that the House passed NNI reauthorization bills in both the 110th and 111th Congresses, only to have both bills die in the Senate. In the current Congress, the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2014 (H. R. 4159) would reauthorize the NNI. The bill was introduced in the House on March 6, 2014, and referred to the Subcommittee on Research and Technology on March 11, 2014.


 
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