What is Molecular Nanotechnology?

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Current U. S. Research Infrastructure for Nanotechnology

Chapter II dealt with policy organizations and strategies. Now we turn to a discussion of the research organizations that determine policy at the tactical level by deciding resource allocations, specifically the current U. S. research infrastructure that supports nanotechnology. I will survey the relationships among government agencies, universities, industrial organizations, and individual scientists specifically involved in nanotechnology.

U. S. research infrastructure in general

In the United States, basic research is predominantly conducted by federal government agencies, by self-directed but federally-funded universities, and by some private organizations. The government agencies that control most of the research funds are the DoD (with some spending not identified to the public), the NSF, and the NIH with its 24 separate and distinct Institutes, Centers, and Divisions. In general, there is little coordination among research funding agencies except when an extraordinary circumstance (e.g. the AIDS crisis) triggers a reallocation of funds to a small number of agencies. The norm is that each Executive Branch agency submits an annual budget based, for the most part, on an inflationary increase from the previous year’s budget. These budgets are typically modified by the legislative branch as influenced by the public sector. The agencies then manage the appropriated research dollars in keeping with their mission statements and they expend resources along the well-defined scientific lines they have traditionally followed. The R&D budgets of these agencies often overlap. For example, research into histocompatability can be found in DoD agencies and armed services branches, in the NSF and its beneficiaries, in the NIH and its supported organizations, in other government-funded academia, and in government-assisted private industry.

S. Nanotechnology Policy Network

Nanotechnology research in the United States is managed in several major unconnected groups of agencies and firms. According to the NSF report, twelve funding agencies and national laboratories participated in funding nanotechnology research, including the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the Army Research Office (ARO), the Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO), DARPA, the Department of Commerce (DOC) and NIST, the Department of Energy (DOE), NASA, NIH, NSF, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the Naval Research Labs (NRL) (Siegel et al., 1997, p. 1). There is a clustering of interested agencies in the Department of Defense, which includes DARPA, ONR, and several Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC’s) such as MITRE Corporation. There is another clustering around NIH and NSF and their sponsored institutions in academia. There are several major stand-alone efforts underway at NIST including synthesis and processing, characterization at nanometer sizes, and property measurement of materials phenomena at small scales. There are also several small nanotechnology-related research projects being funded by NIST’s Advanced Technology Program and several new ONR funded projects at Dr. Richard Smalley’s Center for Nanoscale Research at Rice. Perhaps the most extensive effort resides at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA.) Eleven NASA employees won the 1997 Feynman Prize for Theoretical Work for their extensive molecular modeling efforts. NASA has also committed to work in what it describes as Micro and Nano Technology (MNT) (Siegel et al., 1998, page 151) which its managers describe as being critical for human exploration and the development of space. NASA’s leaders estimate that nanotechnology research will provide benefits in the areas of mass reduction; increased robustness; miniature, autonomous vehicles; spacecraft early warning; maintenance and control; environmental monitoring; life sciences health monitoring; carbonnanotube electronics; hydrogen and fuel storage; and the chemical storage of data (Siegel et al., 1998, page 152). There is a major project at DARPA known as Project ULTRA (for Ultra Dense, Ultra Fast Computing Components/Nanoelectronics.) ULTRA is designed to investigate quantum devices, circuits, and architecture; materials and processing; silicon-based nanoelectronics; and high-density memory. DARPA also has programs for advanced microelectronics, advanced lithography, crystal growth, magnetic materials and devices, ultra-scale computing, ultra photonics, and virtual integrated prototyping (Siegel et al., 1998, page 148). DARPA categorizes all of these programs under the heading of nanotechnology although much of the work is arguably microminiaturization rather than nanotechnology. DARPA leaders do not discuss any research efforts in the areas of nanodefense and nanoweapons. The question of whether we already have a classified program is outside the purview of this paper. Finally, there is much unpublicized work in the field being conducted by private industry. NSF estimates that industrial investments in nanotechnology research match those of the government (Siegel et al., 1998). Unfortunately, industrial programs are not easy to measure because firms tend to release much less information about their R&D than do their counterparts in academia and government. Finding all of the nooks and crannies where nanotechnology research is situated is not particularly easy because there is no clearinghouse for nanotechnology research, although several recent studies have strongly recommended the creation of one. For example, Dr. Lorretta Inglehart is Director of NSF’s National Facilities and Instrumentation Program. Her primary interest is advancing new technologies such as the scanning tunneling microscope to observe and affect what happens at the molecular level. She reports that nanotechnology research is to be found in hundreds of labs and on dozens of campuses across the country. While most of the projects have grants in the $50,000 to $100,000 range, Dr. Inglehart has also directed projects with multi-million dollar awards. She said something in 1995 that is still true. “Each program, each division, has a piece of the puzzle. There isn’t really a central repository for nanotechnology research” (Inglehart, 1995). DARPA might be well-suited for this role, but the extent of its interest in civilian applications is problematic, and it already has the ULTRA project that would tend to claim precedence in any nanotechnology mission although ULTRA only covers a very small subset of the field.

Current State of Nanotechnology Research Policy

The November 1997 NSF Request For Proposals (RFP) was perhaps the first large-scale nanotechnology research effort by the U. S. government. However, there have been several government-sponsored reports that reviewed the state of the field. These studies, beginning in 1991 with one by the OTA, have reported increasingly favorable outlooks for nanotechnology.

OTA, RAND, NAS, NSF-WTEC, and DoD reports on Nanotechnology

There    have     been    five    major,    government-sponsored    reports     that    discussed nanotechnology research in the United States released in the last six years. They were conducted by the Office of Technology Assessment (Congress, 1991b), the RAND Corporation (Nelson & Shipbaugh, 1995), the National Academy of Sciences (NRC, 1996), the National Science Foundation (Siegel et al., 1997), and the Department of Defense (DoD) Task Force on Military Health Care (Olson et al., 1997). Let us briefly review each of these reports.

The OTA Report

In 1991, the Office of Technology Assessment issued the first “nanotechnology” report. Entitled Miniaturization Technologies, the report focused on silicon electronics miniaturization, lithographic capabilities, and semiconductors. It included a small section on molecular nanotechnology. The report covered such topics as the presumptive need for replacement of semiconductor technology, the possibilities for quantum effect devices, the potential for molecular and biological computing, the potential value of biosensors and chemical sensors, and micro-mechanical systems (now known as MEMS.) The report included a two-page figure on “molecular machines” which could bring about remarkable benefits to society but which could also cause concern for policymakers should they become a reality. The presumption of the authors was that such capabilities were decades in the future. They said, “Basic scientific and engineering research in the fields of materials science, chemistry, molecular biology, advanced electronics, molecular modeling, and surface science are being funded by many Federal agencies and would be necessary precursors to the realization of molecular machines. It is impossible to estimate the level of funding, however, since there is no exact definition of precursor technologies” (Congress, 1991b, p. 21). The OTA report suggested that, although there had been U. S. agency funding for precursor technologies, the Japanese had been much more active. It recommended the development of a policy framework to deal with this competitive threat as well as the potential risk from accident or abuse. The report stated that the completion of a “protoassembler” would signal a need to increase federal regulatory involvement. This report was far ahead of thencurrent capabilities. However, the pace of unexpected scientific events in associated fields has been rapid in the last seven years—especially accomplishments such as the unexpected (Kolata, 1998) successful small-laboratory cloning of adult sheep and transgenic cattle. This might prompt one to think that oversight is needed prior to the creation of a working assembler/disassembler.

The RAND Report

In 1995, the RAND Corporation, a respected non-profit think tank, issued a self-funded report on molecular nanotechnology. Its research was undertaken to explore the potential for advanced manufacturing based on progress in the field. The report provides a framework for understanding the scope of this topic—its costs, the level of achievement of the current players in the field throughout the world, possible benefits, development risks, and policy options. The authors contended that “much basic and applied research needs to be undertaken to realistically assess the far-term viability of many of the most interesting emerging concepts, but a careful and objective feasibility assessment could help stimulate near-term achievements and prevent technological surprise by foreign players” (Nelson & Shipbaugh, 1995, p. iii). The report optimistically predicted that the first simple assembler might be constructed in the next several years. The authors suggested that the most prudent course of action would be the creation of a cross-disciplinary working group. They concluded, “Although there has been much encouraging theoretical and conceptual study of the advanced manufacturing potential of molecular nanotechnology, a comprehensive, detailed technical assessment by a multidisciplinary, objective expert working group is lacking and should be conducted to determine engineering feasibility. A positive finding from such an assessment would indicate that cooperation at the basic and applied research level beyond the present situation should be organized” (Nelson & Shipbaugh, 1995, p. xiii). The RAND report’s authors, who understood nanotechnology to be merely an offshoot of biotechnology, suggested that molecular manufacturing could have much to offer for human health and performance. They recommended expanded research efforts on these grounds alone. They cited an exotic-sounding example that could be realizable in the near future—a “miniature ‘submarine’ that might detect problems and even perform operations within the circulatory system.” This concept, reminiscent of the 1966 motion picture “Fantastic Voyage” might, “have a chance of being realized in the not-too-distant future with a vigorous research and development program combining various development of technology and nanotechnology” (Nelson & Shipbaugh, 1995, p. 7). The RAND report suggested a number of steps needed to improve the ability of the R&D community to achieve the goal of producing an assembler. Between the options of maintaining a laissez-faire policy or conducting a detailed, comprehensive, objective assessment and feasibility analysis, they strongly recommended the latter. They recommended the formation of a working group comprised of biotechnology experts, chemists, computer scientists, electrical engineers, materials scientists, mechanical engineers, and physicists.  As they said, “The challenge is to bring together leading experts who can participate in unbiased but informed analysis of a multidisciplinary topic” (p. 35).

1. What is Molecular Nanotechnology?
1.1 Background and Definitions
1.2 Potential benefits of nanotechnology (if it is realized)
1.3 Potential risks of nanotechnology
1.4 Where we are on the path to nanotechnology
2. U. S. Technology Innovation Policy
2.1 Strategic policymaking structure
2.2 Executive Office of the President
3. Current U. S. Research Infrastructure for Nanotechnology
3.1 S. research infrastructure in genera
3.2 S. S&T research infrastructure as it relates to nanotechnology
3.3 S. nanotechnology R&D — extensive but not coordinated
4. Current State of Nanotechnology Research Policy
4.1 OTA, RAND, NAS, NSF-WTEC, and DoD reports on Nanotechnology
4.2 The OTA Report
4.3 The RAND Report
4.4 The NAS Report
4.5 The Department of Defense MHSS 2020 Study
4.6 The NSF/WTEC Report
5. Further Policy Dimensions to Consider
5.1 Financial, management, political, and technical issues
5.2 Peer Review
5.3 Multidisciplinarity
5.4 Peer Review II (Synergy)

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