The US National Nanotechnology Initiative has spent billions of dollars on submicroscopic science in its first 10 years. Corie Lok finds out where the money went and what the initiative plans to do next.
Richard Smalley's cheeks were gaunt and his hair was nearly gone when he testified before the US House of Representatives in June 1999. The Nobel laureate chemist had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma a few months earlier, chemotherapy was taking its toll, and the journey from Rice University in Houston, Texas, had been exhausting. But none of that dimmed his obvious passion for a subject that his listeners found both mystifying and enthralling: nanotechnology.
"We are about to be able to build things that work on the smallest possible length scales, atom by atom, with the ultimate level of finesse," said Smalley, whose prizewinning co-discovery of spherical carbon buckminsterfullerene molecules, or 'buckyballs', in 1985 had helped to trigger a frenzy of research into such possibilities. As an example, Smalley told the legislators about his own laboratory's work with carbon nanotubes, which had been discovered in 1991. These hollow cylinders of carbon, only a few nanometres across, not only promised to conduct electricity better than copper, but also had the potential to produce fibres 100 times stronger than steel at one-sixth of the weight. Smalley also predicted that the "very blunt tool" of chemotherapy that had ravaged his own body would be obsolete within 20 years, because scientists would engineer nanoscale drugs that were "essentially cancer-seeking missiles" able to target mutant cells with minimal side effects.
"I may not live to see it," he said, "but, with your help, I am confident it will happen. Cancer, at least the type that I have, will be a thing of the past."
Nobel laureate Richard Smalley was a leading advocate of the power of nanotechnology.P. DUMAS/EURELIOS/SPL
For all these reasons, Smalley concluded, the US government should back a recently proposed National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI): a multi-agency funding effort that would catalyse these breakthroughs and more by realizing the systematic control of matter down to the scale of atoms.
It was a message that Washington was ready to hear. US President Bill Clinton formally announced the initiative in 2000, with bipartisan support from Congress. The initiative has faced some criticism in the decade since — most notably for its slowness to address environmental, health and safety concerns about nanomaterials. But it has also created more than 70 nano-related academic or government centres across the United States; catalysed new interdisciplinary collaborations between physical, biomedical and social scientists; and fostered a whole system of investors, analysts and start-up companies devoted to commercializing laboratory discoveries. Along the way, the NNI has seen its budget increase steadily (see 'The NNI funding surge'), to the point at which its cumulative funding of more than US$12 billion places it among the largest US civilian technology investments since the Apollo Moon-landing programme.
As such, the NNI story could provide a useful case study for newer research efforts into fields such as synthetic biology, renewable energy or adaptation to climate change. These are the kinds of areas in which the science, applications, governance and public perception will have to be coordinated across several agencies, points out David Rejeski, director of the Science and Technology Innovation Programat the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. That is precisely what the NNI was designed to do, he says. "So I would argue that, for emerging areas like this, the concept of the NNI is a good one."
A knack for persuasion
The most obvious lesson of the NNI is that success depends crucially on timing. The initiative happened when it did in part because the science was already moving fast in the late 1990s, thanks to discoveries during the previous decade such as buckyballs, nanotubes and the development of the atomic force microscope, which can image any surface with nanometre-level resolution (see 'The road to the NNI'). A uniquely favourable political climate also helped. The US economy was booming, particularly in the high-tech sector. The government was enjoying a budget surplus. And the Clinton administration, nearing the end of its term in office, was eager to end on a positive note.
FROM TOP: J. MUNROE/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES; LAGUNA DESIGN/SPL; C. DANILOFF; TI. SLOAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
But timing alone isn't always enough. Any major initiative also needs its champions: well-placed visionaries with a knack for communication and persuasion. Smalley was one. Sadly, his June 1999 testimony was all too prescient: he did not live to see the targeted nanoparticle-based delivery of cancer drugs (although several are now in development). Given only a limited reprieve by chemotherapy, he died on 28 October 2005. But until then, Smalley was a tireless advocate for nanotechnology in general and the NNI in particular.
Another champion is Mihail Roco, an engineer who had studied nanoscale particle interactions at the University of Kentucky in Lexington for 10 years before becoming a programme manager at the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1990. By 1996, he had come to believe that nanotechnology was not just a collection of individual research projects. He saw it as a new, unified discipline with the potential to revolutionize wide areas of science and industry, from health and agriculture to space, information technology, manufacturing and energy. He was also convinced that a major research investment was needed to give the nascent field momentum.
Roco, an affable man with thick red hair, an even thicker Romanian accent, and an infectious enthusiasm for what he calls 'nano', says people regularly warned him against hyperbole as he tried to get the initiative off the ground. But you have to have the courage to articulate your vision, he says. "You have to promise, then you have to fight to realize it."
He found plenty of others thinking along the same lines: by the end of the decade, Roco and like-minded officials at seven other agencies were hammering out a proposal for the NNI, and bringing in leading scientists to help. It was Roco who recommended Smalley as a panellist for the June 1999 congressional hearing.
Political support was also beginning to build from within the White House. Thomas Kalil, a lead adviser on technology issues for Clinton'sNational Economic Council, saw the potential of nanotechnology to yield major economic pay-offs in many industries, including electronics. In March 1999, he helped to get Roco a 10-minute slot to pitch the NNI idea to key White House officials who were considering what to include in the president's 2001 budget proposal.
Neal Lane, a physicist at Rice who became Clinton's chief science adviser in 1998 after a stint as NSF director, was familiar with Smalley's work and had already given his own testimony to Congress about nanotechnology's potential. In December 1999, Lane encouraged the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, of which he was co-chair, to formally recommend that Clinton include the NNI in his budget.
"Nano was a good story," recalls Lane. "It was real and exciting science, and you had a story that you could sell to a congressman or congresswoman that they could then take to their constituents."
They bought it — and so did Clinton. On 21 January 2000, in a speech at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, the president announced that his 2001 budget request would include $500 million for the NNI. "Just imagine," he said, "materials with ten times the strength of steel and only a fraction of the weight; shrinking all the information at the Library of Congress into a device the size of a sugar cube."