Senator Seeks To Keep Nano On The Radar

Gwyneth K. Shaw PhotoPORTLAND, Ore.—U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has been one of nanotechnology’s champions inside the U.S. Capitol. Amid the chaos of an election year and a long list of priorities, he wants to keep science research on the radar screen—with an extra eye on safety.

Wyden, pictured, a Democrat who sits on the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has a good reason to be a booster of research and commercial products that leverage the often-unique properties of ultra-tiny particles.

His home state hosts a burgeoning technology industry—computing giants Intel and HP have large presences here, to name two—as well as a thriving effort to bolster nano-related science and businesses.

One of Wyden’s signature accomplishments, the 2003 bill that helped knit together the then-nascent National Nanotechnology Initiative, is up for renewal. Also potentially on the agenda is a bill, backed by Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor, of Arkansas, and Maryland’s Benjamin Cardin, that would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration money and authority to look hard at potential health and safety issues involving everyday products that contain nanomaterials.

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.

Wyden spoke this week to a Portland conference sponsored by the NNI, aimed at helping local, state and regional programs that are trying to boost nano-related business and research.

“When we started all that a decade ago, it was clear to me that this field had enormous potential,” he told the group, which included researchers, government organizers and economic development officials from states such as Oklahoma, Utah and North Carolina. “You’ve helped us exceed the potential that we felt there was for nanotechnology a decade ago ... this is just going to keep building and building.”

He sat down with the New Haven Independent for an interview about the state of nanotechnology in Congress.

An edited version of the transcript follows.

What do you see as the federal role in terms of developing nanotechnology? Where do you think these things need to go?

I think [some at the conference] already touched a little bit on the challenge, and that is in particular to accelerate commercialization, and, I think, moving as quickly as possible to get things out of the lab and off to a commercial side of the ledger at a time when we’re up against global competition.

Everywhere I travel, I see all of these other countries putting enormous resources into technology and innovation. I think we will pay dearly to be on the sidelines right now.

You’re obviously focused on reauthorization of the 2003 law, but what about the legislation that Sens. Cardin and Pryor have put forward, looking at safety? Do you support that legislation? 

I believe that it raises important issues ... I think we can bring together public interest groups, health advocates, industry leaders, and find the consensus that will allow us to get the best of all worlds: Good-paying jobs, a thriving industry, and an extra measure of health and safety ... I intend to work closely with them.

It seems like a lot of the support for nanotechnology research in Congress, beyond the baseline, is people like yourself, who have an interest in it because it’s in their district or in their state. Is it frustrating to you that there’s not more support for this in general?

We know that getting [funding for] science as a field is always a challenge, because with so much economic hurt in our country, there’s an understandable impatience surrounding any issue that doesn’t include more jobs, quickly. I understand that, and I’m constantly looking at the question of jobs.

There’s kind of two tracks: Steps we can take right now ... and trying to champion science and technology, knowing that the jobs may not come in the next 15 minutes, but will produce big dividends for the future.

Part of what nanotechnology is up against is part of the challenge of advocating for science and research generally at a time of such economic suffering and pain.

The technology companies in your state are saying the same thing:  We have jobs; we need to train the workforce. How do you do that?

Workforce [development], as opposed to science funding, is seen as producing a clearer path to immediate jobs. In other words, when a company or consortium, a public/private consortium, offers training and skills development, there are enough concrete examples of people who have gotten good-paying jobs within a modest length of a training period to shore up support for workforce.

I’m looking forward to the day in the technology field when a company says, “We need 10 people to do such and such,” and our consortium, ONAMI, can say, “‘We can get you 10 people in a year or six months.” It’ll never be like someone calling up and ordering 10 pizzas, but the capacity to be that business-friendly, to be able to literally say, “We can deliver that on such-and-such date” in terms of workers that are capable of doing x, y and z, I think that’ll help business and generate more support.

Do you see much moving in Congress on nanotechnology for the rest of this year?

I very much want reauthorization before the end of the year. I think the Commerce Committee, Chairman [Jay] Rockefeller and others, have felt strongly about this and have watched this sort of bump up against the schedule again and again and again …

If ever there was a bipartisan fit for the Senate right now, and a chance to put us on the right side in terms of taking bolder action in a tough international competition with Europe and Asia, this is the time, and that’s the case I’m going to be making.

I consider the 21st Century bill that I wrote nine years ago one of the most important things I’ve done in my time in public service. 

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