Federal Nano Effort Wins Praise, Gets Homework Assignment
by Gwyneth K. Shaw | May 8, 2012 12:10 pm
Posted to: Environment, Nanotech, Science/ Medical
(NHI Nanoblog) A recent advisory report for President Obama praises the National Nanotechnology Initiative for its efforts, but gives the multi-agency project some homework, too.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, looked at the NNI for the fourth time in eight years. While the panel found that “the NNI remains a successful cooperative venture” and has made progress since the last review two years ago, members also said that “significant hurdles to an optimal structure and management of this broad initiative still persist.”
That’s largely because of the sheer size of the NNI. The umbrella initiative is supposed to foster collaboration and cooperation across 26 agencies and programs within the federal government. Other independent panels, including a group put together by the National Academy of Sciences, have remarked on the need for a more pointed effort.
The PCAST report specifically suggests making sure that high-level officials with the ability to influence the overall budgeting process are more engaged with the NNI, and that there be a stronger connection between the cooperative effort’s strategies and those of the individual agencies.
The PCAST group also recommending bringing in experts from outside the government over the next few years, to help guide efforts to turn basic research on nanotechnology and nanomaterials into successful commercial ventures.
“We’re going to take that advice very seriously,” said Robert Pohanka, who recently took over as director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, which is a key organizational element of the NNI. “And we’re going to utilize that advice in the most constructive way that we can.”
Nanotechnology is a broad term that encompasses a wide variety of uses of very small materials (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). These substances can make better batteries or lighter and stronger bike frames, as well as new medical instruments and medicines that can save lives. They’re increasingly common in consumer products, from “mineral-based” sunscreens to stain-repellent pants to boat paints that resist algae growth.
Nanomaterials are believed to hold great promise for a wide variety of applications. Their ultra-tiny size also gives them different properties; scientists are struggling to figure out whether that can make them dangerous in the process, and how and why it happens.
Like the National Academies report, the PCAST group also highlighted the ongoing need to explore the environmental, health and safety implications of these super-small materials. The new report lauded the uptick in safety-related funding over the past several years—from $35 million in 2005 to $103 million projected for this budget year—but raised an eyebrow at the relatively small $2 million increase in the request for the 2013 budget year.
The PCAST group reiterated the earlier report’s advice that an additional $20 to $25 million investment would be a smart move, in part because better safety information could ease roadblocks to commercialization.
The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office took earlier PCAST advice and designated someone to coordinate safety efforts inside that organization, Deputy Director Sally Tinkle, and established a working group scrutinizing what’s coming out of the research laboratories, the report says. But “there is still a lack of integration between nanotechnologyrelated EHS research funded through the NNI and the kind of information policy makers need to effectively manage potential risks from nanomaterials.”
The NNI released its own safety-related strategic plan last fall, which emphasized the need for more research, especially the kind that’s targeted at understanding the full life cycle of a nanomaterial or a nano-enabled product, from manufacturing to use to disposal.
Tinkle said the NNI has already made “significant progress” on the panel’s suggestions, and that officials were “particularly pleased with the very positive things they had to say about our [safety] strategy.”
“I think if we consider their advice and continue with our revised strategy, then we will be producing for them exactly what they want to see,” she said. “We’re on that path.”
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