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The U.S. House of Representatives passed its first major technology legislation Wednesday, authorizing $2.36 billion over three years for nanotechnology research and development programs. The bill, the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2002 (HR 766), provides a formal structure for coordination of research across a number of federal agencies.
Nanotechnology refers to the ability of scientists and engineers to manipulate matter at the level of single atoms, and small groups of atoms. With new tools, structural properties of matter 1/100,000 the width of hair are being manipulated by researchers, and the technology holds the promise of changing the way many things are designed and made in information technology, medicine, energy, biotechnology, electronics and other fields.
For the technology sector, nanotechnology processes could possibly allow semiconductor innovation to advance Moore's Law beyond the limitations imposed by today's design, development, and fabrication tools.
The emerging science is the top inter-agency priority in the Bush Administration's fiscal 2004 proposed budget for non-medical, civilian scientific and technological research and development. The National Science Foundation (NSF) conservatively predicts a $1 trillion global market for nanotechnology in little over a decade.
Sponsored by Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R.-N.Y.), chairman of the Science Committee, and Mike Honda (D.-Calif.), the legislation emphasizes interdisciplinary research, seeks to address societal concerns raised by nanotechnology, and requires outside reviews of the program.
Similar legislation sponsored by Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) and George Allen (R.-Va.) is on the fast track in the Senate. In the last legislative session, Wyden and Allen also sponsored a nanotechnology bill that was unanimously passed in the Senate Commerce Committee but did not come up for a vote in the full Senate.
"I am optimistic that this bill will be sent to the president's desk in the very near future," Boehlert said.
Both the House and Senate legislation has been endorsed by several leading science, technology and business organizations, including the National Association of Manufacturers, the Semiconductor Industry Association, the Nanobusiness Alliance and the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America.
In 1996, a federal interagency working group was formed to set up and define a national nanotechnology strategy. This developed into the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which is a collaborative initiative of 13 federal agencies.
The bill passed Wednesday creates an advisory board 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 NNI. The board would 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.
In addition, the bill calls for the president to establish a national nanotechnology research program to undertake long-term basic nanoscience and engineering research that focuses on fundamental understanding and synthesis of nanometer-size building blocks. Particular emphasis would be placed on potential breakthroughs in areas such as materials and manufacturing, nanoelectronics, medicine and healthcare, computation and information technology, and national security.
The legislation would also help ensure a steady stream of R&D dollars to Honda's Silicon Valley district. Last year, the area was named the top "Place To Watch" in the race to become the nation's economic center of nanotechnology and microsystems technology by Small Times magazine, a nanotechnology publication. The technology base has already led to the formation of several formal and informal networks and think tanks dedicated to nanotechnology, designed to enhance the development of the field in the region.