PCAST Suggests Grand Challenges For Nanotechnology

In early October the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued its fifth assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).  The assessment of the program, established in 2000, is periodically required by law.

A major focus of this latest assessment is commercialization.  The report argues that the time is now for encouraging the utilization of the last decade of research in new products and services not presently available.  While the report calls for continued support for research in early stage nanotechnology, it also encourages the government to support this commercialization.  Agencies involved in the NNI will need to add to their current infrastructure plans and procedures for coordinating commercialization activity in addition to the basic and applied research efforts they support.  Part of this effort draws on a tool commonly used by the current Administration – the Grand Challenge.  In addition to finding the right areas for Grand Challenges, the report encourages the use of public-private partnerships and prize competitions to facilitate commercialization.  Presumably this means that the Feynman Grand Prize would soon have more company, should the government implement the recommendations of this report.

And here’s where there may be some trouble.  Part of the report outlines how the 2012 recommendations were implemented, and the record isn’t good.  In many cases, the Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives are not being funded, or administered, in ways that would fully support the goals of the NNI, which include maintaining and/or achieving American leadership in areas of nanotechnology.  With the current budget pressures and willful government dysfunction, it’s likely to take more than a biennial scold from outside advisers to make sure American nanotechnology can compete on the world stage.


PCAST To End Summer With A Report Doubleheader

While the next meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) is September 19, there are some items that cannot wait.  Namely the release of two reports.

On August 28 PCAST will hold a public conference call in connection with the release of two new reports.  One will be a review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (periodically required by law) and the other focuses on educational information technology.

The call runs from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Eastern.  Registration is required, and closes at noon Eastern on the 26th..


PCAST Meets To Take A Deep Dive

When I first posted about tomorrow’s meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), it was without benefit of an agenda.  Now that I have seen it, my mildly informed speculation has been confirmed.

The meeting will start at 9:15 Eastern time tomorrow in Washington.  A webcast will be available, as usual.  Simply visit the PCAST meetings page tomorrow.  The morning starts with progress updates (and perhaps final approvals) on PCAST reports on the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and antibiotic resistance.  The NNI report is required every other year by law, so PCAST will be returning to somewhat familiar territory.

The presentation part of the meeting concludes with a panel on oceans policy.  As I guessed, Beth Kertulla, Director of the National Ocean Council, will be part of the panel.  She will be joined by other leaders in the ocean science research community: Robert Gagosian, President of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and Anthony Knap, head of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University.

As usual, there is time set aside for public comment.  The public session is scheduled to end by lunchtime.

PCAST Report Update – NNI and Broadband

Yesterday’s report from the President’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology (PCAST) was the third of the year, following reports on education and nanotechnology earlier in the year.  This year’s nanotechnology and broadband reports represent the eleventh and twelfth reports issued by the PCAST of this administration.

The broadband report is focused on government-held spectrum, consistent with President Obama’s goal of finding 500 megahertz of spectrum for wireless broadband use.  The report concludes that increasingly narrow assignments of frequencies would be impractical and costly.  They recommend the government pursue its strategy of expanding broadband availability by determining spectrum bands that would lend itself to spectrum sharing.  And this is the point where I have to concede the limits of my technical expertise.  I have no idea if this is a valid strategy forward, or even the best available strategy for the government to pursue broadband expansion.

The nanotechnology report is required by statute and addresses the National Nanotechnology Initiative; this is the fourth report in a series and the second issued by PCAST during this administration.  Commercialization was an emphasis in the previous nanotechnology report, and PCAST is pleased with the progress demonstrated in the time since that report.  However, they are concerned with a lack of sufficient progress in strategic planning and implementation, as well as metrics and assessments of environmental health and safety related to nanotechnology.  As seems consistent with many initiatives for which the Office of Science and Technology Policy has responsibility, there is a lack of sufficient resources.

Here There Be Science and Technology Dragons

I spent most of the last two days at the Future Tense event Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future.  For a Washington event, this was pretty ‘out there.’  Not a lot of talk about specific incidents or actual governance systems, but plenty of talk about what we could be facing in the future, and how we have tried (with varying levels of success and failure) to govern technologies in the past.

A particularly nice aspect to the event was the presence of several science fiction writers and self-styled science comedian Brian Malow.  As the writers create fully formed worlds with different technologies that are governed or not governed well, their presence at the event makes a fair amount of sense.  Oddly enough, they were some of the more grounded of the conference’s participants.

Perhaps I’m just too used to the typical Washington policy event dealing with more specific policies or technological situations.  What I came away with most is what other people or thinking rather than useful ideas to engage with when thinking about technological guidance.  That and the notion that I need to read some Robert Sawyer, and more Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling.

The agenda and video of each of the sessions is available online. If I were to pick highlights for others to make sure to check out, my list includes:

The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology Today – Dan Sarewitz of the Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes was a very needed presence on this panel, which like many at the conference, tended towards a bit of technologically deterministic optimism.  Had Presidential Bioethics Commission Chair Amy Gutmann been at this panel (she appeared the following day), I think she’d have added to Sarewitz’s arguments. Continue reading

An Early Favorite For the Oil Cleanup X Challenge

The researchers at the Senseable City lab at MIT have developed a new kind of oil cleanup technology that looks promising.  They presented their work today at Venice’s Biennale.  The project is called Sea Swarm and combines autonomous navigation of multiple robots with nanotechnology material that skims the water for oil (or other chemicals).  Because the material, a mesh of nanowires, can gather many times its own weight, there’s the potential to be much more effective than current mechanical skimmer technology.  And since the devices are smaller than conventional skimmers, they can access places current technology cannot.

The MIT team will enter Sea Swarm in the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge.  Even if they don’t win, demonstrating effectiveness of the technology could persuade sufficient investment in the product for it to be commercialized.  Better late than never.

The March PCAST Meeting

The third fourth meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) took place on March 12 in Washington.  While the public sessions were limited to that day, remarks by PCAST co-chair (and presidential science adviser) Dr. John Holdren suggest that there was a private session with Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Hamburg on the issue of regulatory science.  After the public session, PCAST members met with the President to present the Council’s latest review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

You can review the meeting agenda, and watch the public session webcast.  Other meeting information (including some presentation slides) is also online.

Working groups within PCAST continue to work between full Council meetings.  However, they have stopped giving updates on their progress beyond general comments from Dr. Holdren at the beginning of the meetings.  I wish they would resume making more detailed updates in open session. Continue reading