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Monday, March 29, 2010

Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer

 John F. Sargent Jr.
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Nanoscale science, engineering and technology—commonly referred to collectively as nanotechnology—is believed by many to offer extraordinary economic and societal benefits. Congress has demonstrated continuing support for nanotechnology and has directed its attention primarily to three topics that may affect the realization of this hoped for potential: federal research and development (R&D) in nanotechnology; U.S. competitiveness; and environmental, health, and safety (EHS) concerns. This report provides an overview of these topics—which are discussed in more detail in other CRS reports—and two others: nanomanufacturing and public understanding of and attitudes toward nanotechnology. 

The development of this emerging field has been fostered by significant and sustained public investments in nanotechnology R&D. Nanotechnology R&D is directed toward the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers. At this size, the properties of matter can differ in fundamental and potentially useful ways from the properties of individual atoms and molecules and of bulk matter. Since the launch of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2000 through FY2010, Congress has appropriated approximately $12.4 billion for nanotechnology R&D. In addition, the President requested an additional $1.8 billion in funding for nanotechnology R&D for FY2011. More than 60 nations have established similar programs. In 2006 alone, total global public R&D investments reached an estimated $6.4 billion, complemented by an estimated private sector investment of $6.0 billion. Data on economic outputs that are used to assess competitiveness in mature technologies and industries, such as revenues and market share, are not available for assessing nanotechnology. Alternatively, data on inputs (e.g., R&D expenditures) and non-financial outputs (e.g. scientific papers, patents) may provide insight into the current U.S. position and serve as bellwethers of future competitiveness. By these criteria, the United States appears to be the overall global leader in nanotechnology, though some believe the U.S. lead may not be as large as it has been for previous emerging technologies. 

Some research has raised concerns about the safety of nanoscale materials. There is general agreement that more information on EHS implications is needed to protect the public and the environment; to assess and manage risks; and to create a regulatory environment that fosters prudent investment in nanotechnology-related innovation. Nanomanufacturing—the bridge between nanoscience and nanotechnology products—may require the development of new technologies, tools, instruments, measurement science, and standards to enable safe, effective, and affordable commercial-scale production of nanotechnology products. Public understanding and attitudes may also affect the environment for R&D, regulation, and market acceptance of products incorporating nanotechnology. 

In 2003, Congress enacted the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act providing a legislative foundation for some of the activities of the NNI, addressing concerns, establishing programs, assigning agency responsibilities, and setting authorization levels. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate remain actively engaged in the NNI. Legislation has been introduced in the House (H.R. 554) and Senate (S. 1482) that would amend the act. The House passed H.R. 554 on February 11, 2009. The Senate has not acted on this legislation. The 111th Congress may address policy issues related to the NNI through this or other legislation.

Date of Report: March 12, 2010
Number of Pages: 15
Order Number: RL34511
Price: $29.95

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