U.S. Risks Losing Nanotechnology Lead

The United States leads the world in nanotechnology, but its position can easily be lost if the nation fails to address emerging problems, a research firm says.
The United States leads the world in spending, research and patents in nanotechnology, but its position can easily be lost if the nation fails to address emerging problems, a research firm said Friday.

To maintain global leadership, the United States need to increase federal funding for research, eliminate regulatory uncertainty surrounding environmental, health and safety issues; and do a better job at retaining foreign doctoral students, Lux Research Inc. said in a report that was the basis of testimony given to a House subcommittee Wednesday by Matthew M. Nordan, vice president of research for the firm.

Nanotechnology is the science of developing materials at the atomic and molecular level. The materials are often used in the fields of computer storage, semiconductors, biotechnology, manufacturing and energy.

The United States last year outspent all other governments on nanotechnology research and development, accounting for $1.6 billion of the $4.6 billion spent worldwide, according to Lux, a New York-based research and advisory firm focused on nanotechnology. On the corporate level, U.S. companies accounted for almost half of the $3.8 billion spent by corporations globally.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has assigned U.S. entities 56 percent of the total number of patents issued for nanotechnology, and U.S.-based scientists authored 24 percent of articles published in nano-science and nanotechnology journals through June 2005, Lux said.

Despite this leadership, there are a number of factors that places the United States at risk of losing its position, the research firm said.

When spending levels are corrected for actual purchasing power, U.S. government spending last year was exceeded by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

In promising areas for applying nanotechnology, other countries outpaced the United States in developing intellectual property. An example would be carbon nano-tubes proposed for a new type of large, flat-panel monitor that could outperform today's LCD and plasma displays at lower cost and energy consumption, Lux said.

In addition, patents issued to U.S. companies are being violated in countries where there is lax enforcement of intellectual property. Lux cited China as an example.

To maintain the nation's leadership, the U.S. government must fund its National Nanotechnology Initiative at or beyond current budget request levels, Lux said. The government spent about $1.15 billion last year, but most of the money went to initial purchases of equipment and construction of facilities, not to funding research.

"No. 1 is sustained funding," Nordan said in an interview.

Regulatory agencies responsible for environmental, health and safety issues, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, need to quickly establish firm guidelines for how nano-particles will be treated under existing, or potentially new, regulations.

"What companies need is a roadmap of how EPA and OSHA will arrive at their regulatory schemes over time," Nordan said.

In the area of education, the United States needs to "inspire students with wonder" for the physical sciences starting at the grammar school level to get more young people into the field, Lux said.

In the meantime, however, the nation has to provide economic incentives to keep foreign students in the country after they complete their education.

"(If not), we risk being a drive-thru education vehicle for other countries," Nordan said.

Finally, the government should get as specific as possible on nanotechnology applications banned for export for military reasons, so not to "choke" nanotech commercialization, Lux said.

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