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U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative strong but future threatened by rise in global R&D competitors

June 18, 2020

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently released its report on the state of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) — authorized by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 to coordinate the nanotech-related R&D activities of 26 federal agencies — finding that although the U.S. has maintained a strong program it is increasingly challenged by international competitors. Specifically, the report names China as the primary contender for the U.S.’ spot at the top and attributes its success to strong Chinese leadership and commitment to substantial investment in the field. Looking toward the future, the authors reevaluated the NNI’s stated goals, identified three priorities to ensure the NNI vision can be carried out moving forward, and conclude with five key recommendations needed to meet these priorities and carry out the NNI vision.

Now in its 20th year since being proposed, the NNI is still recognized as vitally important to maintaining the nation’s scientific and economic prosperity and ensuring national security. As such, the initiative’s goals warranted a review. The report upholds the originally stated goals as follows:

  • Advance a world-class nanotechnology R&D program;
  • Foster the transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public benefit;
  • Develop and sustain educational resources, a skilled workforce, and a dynamic infrastructure and toolset to advance nanotechnology; and
  • Support responsible development of nanotechnology.

Despite supporting the goals, the authors found disparities in how the goals have been prioritized in terms of attention, coordination and investment. The authors also found that international competitors have become increasingly innovative in each of the NNI goal areas and may, in turn, be experiencing better societal outcomes as a result. Having reaffirmed the NNI’s goals, and accounting for increased international competition and innovation and the uneven performance in the United States, the authors submitted the following statement as the initiative’s new guiding vision:

“Creation of innovative mechanisms to realize the transformational societal benefits that flow from faster commercialization of nanotechnologies while reestablishing scientific leadership through aggressive, strategic investment in basic nanoscience R&D, improved infrastructure, and expanded education and training necessary to fuel future expansions in foundational knowledge and technological revolutions.”

To carry out this vision, the authors established the following three priorities:

  • Priority 1 – Establish broad partnerships to improve the efficiency of nanoscience/nanotechnology R&D translation into economic, environmental, and societal benefits.
  • Priority 2 – Strategically select and focus on environmental and societal challenges with nanoscience and nanotechnology.
  • Priority 3 – Increase the recruitment and training of future scientists and engineers, specifically with the focus on accelerating technology translation, and with robust investments in next-generation infrastructure.

These challenges and priorities echo those from other recent studies such as the National Science Board’s report, Vision 2030. It expresses similar concerns over international competition for global R&D dominance and yields likewise similar approaches for maintaining U.S. leadership. As in that publication, the National Academies’ evaluation of the NNI recommends heavy investments in research infrastructure, domestic STEM workforce development and international recruitment, increased coordination between the myriad agencies working on nanotech development spanning almost every industry, and strengthening the lab-to-market innovation ecosystems that support nanotechnology commercialization.

nanotech, r&d