PCAST Releases Second Report; Recognizes 10 Years of Federal Nanotechnology

On Thursday the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its second report of the Obama Administration.  The report was the Third Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which was established in late 2000 to coordinate nanotechnology research and development across the federal government.  While the report notes that the U.S. continues to have a strong nanotechnology sector and corresponding support from the government.  However, as with most other economic and research sectors, the rest of the world is catching up, or spending enough to try and catch up to the United States.

According to the report, more attention needs to be paid to commercialization efforts (a concern not unique to nanotechnology).  In addition, there should be a more systematic or comprehensive examination of environmental, health and safety issues.  Arguably those two main concerns are very related, as concerns – real and perceived – about the impact nanotechnology products may have on the body can well affect how commercially successful these products can be.  Remember, concerns over genetically modified organisms in food and agriculture have affected how well those products have sold (or been banned) in parts of the world.

The report examines three components of the NNI: Program Management, Nanotechnology Outcomes (metrics), and Environmental, Health and Safety.  The report also lists action items (excerpted below), some of which may see Congressional action:

  • Over the next five years, the Federal Government should double the funding devoted to nanomanufacturing. At the same time, the NNI should maintain or expand the level of funding devoted to basic nanotechnology research.
  • Direct the agencies within the NNI to increase the percentage of their nanotechnology related funding provided to the [National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office] NNCO from $3 million to $5 million, and to require each agency to task senior representatives with decision-making authority to participate in coordination activities of the NNI.
  • The NNCO must also more actively and aggressively manage the NNI so that it can respond quickly to emerging opportunities and better coordinate interagency efforts, and it must develop metrics for program outputs.
  • Mandate that the [Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology] Subcommittee’s [Nanotechnology Environmental Health Implications] working group develop a cross-agency strategic plan that links [Environmental, Health and Safety] research activities with knowledge gaps and decision-making needs within government and industry, and that the NNCO create a new senior-level position to hold the participating agencies accountable for implementing this strategic plan. This strategic plan must contain clear principles to support the identification of plausible risks based on realistic expectations of exposure to specific nanomaterials.
  • Develop a program to provide U.S. Permanent Resident Cards for foreign individuals who receive an advanced degree in science or engineering at an accredited institution in the United States and for whom proof of permanent employment in that scientific or engineering discipline exists.

By all means, go ahead and read the report, or the NNI website, for more details.

Today in Scarce Natural Resources

My past posts on this subject have focused mostly on elements in the bottom half of the periodic table.  Today’s focus is on the upper right corner – helium.  As described by SEED magazine, the U.S. manages to have a significant amount of helium – a relatively scarce material elsewhere on the planet.  Unfortunately, the stockpile has not been effectively managed, and the increase in demand for helium has driven up the price such that even though the U.S. has a huge amount of helium, research and manufacturing facilities have run into trouble keeping up with rising prices.  Unfortunately, current trends suggest that the U.S. may well transition from a net exporter of helium to a net importer of helium just as it did with oil in the last century.  And we all remember how dependence on foreign oil worked out.

The SEED article has some suggestions that make sense.  First is to reset the price for federal helium so that it’s not a source of income, but a scarce resource.  Second is to start supporting work on technology that can recycle and/or minimize the use of helium in the manufacturing processes that have stoked demand.  Will this happen before the U.S. has to start importing the stuff?  I hope so.