Guest Writer - Gastautor - Gast Schrijver

Politics of the US $3.7B + $849 M
Nanotech Funding Bill

 

 

President George W. Bush approved the S189 bill, also known as the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act on December 3, 2003. Starting in 2005, this Act will provide $3.7 billion over the next four years for federal nanotechnology programs, and reorganizes government and research communities under a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO). Bush also has requested $849 million in funding for nanotechnology projects for fiscal year 2004.

The bill calls for the president to establish a national program to undertake long-term basic nanoscience and engineering research. Emphasis will be on potential breakthroughs in materials and manufacturing, nanoelectronics, medicine and health care, computation and IT and national security. It also creates the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel (NNAP) from industry and academia to help articulate short-term (1-5 years), medium-range (6-10 years), and long-range (10+ years) goals and objectives and to establish performance metrics for the already established National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) under the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), which is a collaborative initiative of 13 federal agencies. The bill provides a structure for coordination of research across agencies. Under the legislation, the advisory board will submit an annual report to the president and Congress regarding nanotechnology progress, and a review on funding levels for nanotechnology activities for each federal agency.

Funding from the S189 bill starts October 2005, the beginning of the government's next fiscal year. Nanotech funding has increased 83 percent since 2001, according to the White House. It is estimated that a whopping 95 percent of the $3.7 Billion authorized will go to scientific research and development -- roughly 60 percent for academia and 35 percent for government labs. It also emphasizes interdisciplinary research, seeks to address concerns raised by nanotechnology, and requires outside reviews of the programs. After stating some of the bill’s major details, this article will discuss the politics of the nanotech bill.

This 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act started in the office of Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2001, until it was derailed by the events of Sept. 11 and was shelved. In 2002, Sen. George Allen, Sen. Ron Wyden and House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert picked up the mantle.

The signing of the bill by President Bush makes nanotechnology the highest federally funded basic science and technology effort since the space race. Funding that in the past was at the discretion of the president is now mandated. The bill ultimately promised jobs and economic development, and in the short term deliver research projects to government labs and universities in potentially every Congressional district. That’s a powerful combination to an elected official.

The reasoning behind that last statement is because of the role of the new National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) and National Nanotech Advisory Panel (NNAP) (an appointed group of academics and industrial leaders) who will together assess, guide, and allocate nanotechnology research spending and reports directly to the President and Congress. This advisory board potentially could have much influence over government spending policy and thus have the potential of becoming a very powerful and influential entity.

NNAP will replace the current Nanotechnology Technical Advisory Group (NTAG) charged with providing technical information on nanotechnology to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). As part of NTAG, PCAST has formed three Task Forces in the following areas: Materials/Electronics/Photonics; Energy/Environment; and Biology/Medicine/Societal Issues. NTAG consists of experts representing a range of disciplines, such as bionanotechnology, drug delivery, biosensers, MEMS, sensing, chemistry, physics, business, commercial and government. NTAG is made up of academics and industrial players. The TAG shall expire September 30, 2005 when NNAP will takes over in October 2005.
How will the members of the newly created and politically influential NNAP be best chosen? The question is important because of the existence of factions in nanotechnology, in particular, between the non-profit nanotechnology organizations themselves. The problem is that it is from these competing non-profit organizations that members of these advisory panels and offices may often be drawn from. There is a lot of money at stake here so it is no surprise that people are fighting for a piece of the pie.

More interesting is if you examine the current NTAG group closely, the 40+ members invited and included are also heavily supported by one of the non-profit organizations. Where are the members supported by the other groups? In order for NTAG and NNAP to be objective and fulfill their responsibility to the American public, NNAP needs to include other notable nanotechnology experts that aren’t favored by any one particular non-profit organization that may happen to have more political influence.
The formation of the NNAP should offer the opportunity to bring in new members that have been in or just entered into the nanotechnology community, and who can provide additional and fresher perspectives. It would be prudent to include members capable of discussing the sociological impact of nanotechnology and technology trends in general. If the members of the NNAP group are not diverse enough in support and opinion, then the purpose for their creation and existence becomes moot. Otherwise, they become a political tool and our tax dollars payer money does not aren’t get allocated appropriately, nor to the right areas which would benefit citizens the most.

Most people have no idea the degree of politics, egos and power plays within the nanotechnology community, and shenanigans are not confined to the U.S. players, which makes sense because nanotechnology – like all advanced technology - is global. Some of you are familiar with the Drexler-Smalley debate surrounding the potential of Molecular Nanotechnology (MNT). MNT got its one-time feasibility study deleted from the bill in the final stretch. I will not go into specific details into surrounding what MNT is, or that debate since many other articles cover the details of that debate, and that information is easily accessible on the Internet. Unfortunately, similar to stem cell research and cloning, MNT will likely become more advanced in other countries that will support and fund it. MNT advances will eventually come out of some place like China when it is found to be truly feasible. It just takes time. Since MNT lost out in the nanotech bill, members of the opposing camp may see it as a “win” for them in the short term. However, it is a “loss” for everyone else in the long term when potential is stifled early on and not given a chance to prove itself one way or another. (link to our omission article here)

The idea that two notable scientists are battling it out publicly while the debate degenerates to name calling and emotional arguments is unfortunate and typical of the Reality TV culture we’ve become. If this debate was to stimulate thought and brainstorm, then the value of a public debate is a good thing. However it becomes clear that there are motivations other than this for this public display, which is indicative of the loss of scientific objectivity. This behavior among the scientific community is particularly distressing because it diminishes credibility of both sides to the in the eyes of the general public.

Both Drexler and Smalley camps have good points from a scientific perspective, but there is no definitive proof yet that one is more right. Which scientist can honestly say they know better than the other? Can they both be right? Of course. Can they both be wrong? Of course. Science, and in this case, Nanotechnology, is not one of those areas where who is right is determined by the majority of supporters. It will be via research and discovery of the facts to answer the basic questions that will determine who is more right.

Even the scientific community, which includes the nanotech community, needs to remember that before theory, comes hypothesis. A hypothesis is not yet proven to be a theory. So is there potential for MNT? There is no answer unless we fund the feasibility study. It’s a circular argument. Neither Drexler and Smalley nor others are equipped to really know the answer to this right now, before it is studied. However, looking more closely, certain non-profit organizations have thrown their support behind one figure or another in this debate.

The best of us fall victim to the lure of power, influence, money and ego. Although Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley have achieved a pinnacle in their careers, the founders of these organizations probably have not. Unless this debate is for more constructive purposes, it is beginning to look more like a battle of egos. Of course, one can always argue how much more could a Nobel Prize physicist and famous published nanotechnology visionary want after achieving so much already. My experience is that sometimes, unfortunately, there is always more to want. The motivations of such non-profits and their organizers behind the debaters need to be examined if you want a clearer picture of why some people’s profiles are promoted and why others aren’t.

Let us look more closely at the non-profit organizations. Non-profits by definition imply an altruistic bent to their existence which also sometimes allows the non-profit status to qualify for a favorable tax status. As we are all allowed to speak our minds under the First Amendment, creating such an organization behind these ideas lends weight to those ideas them because it collects supporters as members and lends credibility to the ideas. These members may or may not pump money into the organization to support itself. However, in some cases, the non-profit classification aids in the raising of funds from outside sources for its collective altruistic cause. From a marketing perspective, this is a great fund-raising strategy. More interestingly, the non-profit status provides a platform for ideas to be presented as altruistic, where motivations can be judged under less scrutiny. For instance, unless there is a real problem, most do not scrutinize charities even though they may have questionable practices because the thinking is that the charity organization, a non-profit, is providing a community or social service of some sort that no one else can or wants to. There is an aversion to checking up on those who seem to be helping you. The reason this is important is because there are non-profit organizations whose activities and motivations deserve more scrutiny.

If this is the case, how do you confirm it? That is the tricky part and the only answer here is research, by asking the right questions. Some basic questions could be “Who are the members or founders of such non-profit organizations and what are their backgrounds? Are they qualified to be objective advocates of nanotechnology and its impact on society? Where do they get their money? Where do they want to get their money? What are their alliances and what is their purpose? What are the purpose and motivations for their existence…money, power, politics, ego, etc.?” These are similar questions used when assessing management of organizations in general. Look for the conflicts and overlaps of interest and ulterior motives.

There is also money to be made further down this value chain. Large corporations and investment firms will be heartened by this government policy putting their money where their mouth is. These policies are to spur economic growth by helping encourage just those industries to invest their own capital, to help themselves and the economy, by creating jobs and encouraging economic growth. In the end, the government and its citizens becomes a customer for those products created by taxpayer investment. It is a closed loop. Many of the non-profit nanotechnology organizations are positioning themselves in for-profit entities to handle those needs.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money, as we live in a capitalistic society that wholeheartedly supports this. We all have to make money to survive. However, how we make the money is an issue. Even non-profits are bound by ethical standards of doing their non-profit business. Conflicts of interest here run rampant where the lines between non-profit and for-profit become vague and laden with ulterior motives. The motivations of all such organizations should be examined before deciding behind whom to throw their support and who will be appointed as members of the NNAP and NNCO.
When science does fall victim to politics and egos, even unknowingly, we invariably get an inaccurate assessment of the facts because opinions become presented as facts. The egos involved are not just the ‘scientists’. Noted scientists must become wary of when they and their status are being used as pawns for someone else’s political and financial ambitions. This scenario is by no means confined to just the U.S. as there are cross-country issues between non-profit nanotechnology organizations too…as you would expect.

The other reason for the existence of the non-profit nanotechnology factions is power…in particular political influence. This is a whole different can of worms, which I will not go into here, but needs to be at least mentioned.

You would be surprised as to who is really qualified to speak on nanotechnology and investing in nanotechnology, and who is actually only speaking about it. Being supported by influential people does not necessarily mean the substance is there, nor does it mean they are validated by that support.

Those who are funding nanotechnology, which in some sense is everyone including the taxpayer, needs to be aware of the politics of who is deciding what, how, where, when and to who the $3.7 Billion + $849 Million funding goes. We need to ensure that members of these influential panels and offices are chosen carefully, and in our own best interests. Those are That money is our taxpayer dollarsmoney. If this issue is important to you, I urge you to contact your Congressman to make sure he or she is not getting only one side of the big picture by design. There is money, political power and influence involved, and egos are very much a problem here. In this case, you don’t need to watch soap operas because real life is more interesting.

 

 

Science is unpredictable. Expect the unexpected.

Dr. Pearl Chin has an MBA from Cornell, a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from University of Delaware's Center for Composite Materials and B.E. in Chemical Engineering from The Cooper Union.

Dr. Chin specializes in advising on nanotechnology investment opportunities. She is also Managing General Partner of Seraphima Ventures and CEO of Red Seraphim Consulting where she advises investment firms and and startup firms on the business strategy of nanotechnology investments. She was Managing Director of the US offices and co-Managing Director of the London offices of Cientifica. Prior to that, she was a Management Consultant with Pittiglio Rabin Todd & McGrath (PRTM)'s Chemicals, Engineered Materials and Packaged Goods group. Dr. Chin will be advising the Cornell University JGSM's student run VC fund, Big Red Venture Fund (BRVF), on investing in nanotechnology.

She is a Senior Associate of The Foresight Institute in the US and was the US Representative of the Institute of Nanotechnology in the UK. She was an alternate finalist for a Congressional Fellowship with the Materials Research Society. She was also a Guest Scientist collaborating with the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) Polymer Division's Electronic Materials Group under the US Department of Commerce. Dr. Chin is a US Citizen born and raised in New York City.

© Pearl Chin 2004

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Dr. Pearl Chin