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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

Document available electronically as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail congress@pennyhill.com or call us at 301-253-0881. 

The National Nanotechnology Initiative: Overview, Reauthorization, and Appropriations Issues

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

Nanotechnology—a term encompassing the science, engineering, and applications of submicron materials—involves the harnessing of unique physical, chemical, and biological properties of nanoscale substances in fundamentally new and useful ways. The economic and societal promise of nanotechnology has led to substantial and sustained investments by governments and companies around the world. In 2000, the United States launched the world's first national nanotechnology program. From FY2001 through FY2010, the federal government invested approximately $12.4 billion in nanoscale science, engineering, and technology through the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). U.S. companies and state governments have invested billions more. President Obama has requested an additional $1.8 billion in NNI funding for FY2011. As a result of this focus and these investments, the United States has, in the view of many experts, emerged as a global leader in nanotechnology. However, the competition for global leadership in nanotechnology is intensifying as countries and companies around the world increase their investments. 

Nanotechnology's complexity and intricacies, early stage of development (with commercial payoff possibly years away for many potential applications), and broad scope of potential applications engender a wide range of public policy issues. Maintaining U.S. technological and commercial leadership in nanotechnology poses a variety of technical and policy challenges, including development of technologies that will enable commercial scale manufacturing of nanotechnology materials and products; environmental, health, and safety (EHS) concerns; and maintenance of public confidence in its safety. 

Congress established programs, assigned responsibilities, and initiated research and development (R&D) related to these issues in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-153). While many provisions of this act have no sunset provision, FY2008 was the last year of agency authorizations included in the act. Legislation to amend and reauthorize the act was introduced in the House (H.R. 5940, 110th Congress) and the Senate (S. 3274, 110th Congress) in the 110th Congress. Both bills were titled the National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendments Act of 2008. The House passed H.R. 5940 by a vote of 407-6; the Senate did not act on S. 3274. In January 2009, H.R. 554, the National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendments Act of 2009, was introduced in the 111th Congress. The act contains essentially the same provisions as H.R. 5940 (110th Congress). In February 2009, the House passed the bill by voice vote under a suspension of the rules. In July 2009, S. 1482, the National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendments Act of 2009, was introduced in the Senate. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. No further action has been taken. 

Proponents of the NNI assert that nanotechnology is one of the most important emerging and enabling technologies and that U.S. competitiveness, technological leadership, national security, and societal interests require an aggressive approach to the development and commercialization of nanotechnology. 

Critics of the NNI voice concerns that reflect disparate underlying beliefs. Some critics assert that the government is not doing enough to move technology from the laboratory into the marketplace. Others argue that the magnitude of the public investment may skew what should be market-based decisions in research, development, and commercialization. Still other critics say that the inherent risks of nanotechnology are not being addressed in a timely or effective manner.


Date of Report: March 18, 2010
Number of Pages: 52
Order Number: RL34401
Price: $29.95

Document available electronically as a pdf file or in paper form.
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Emergency Communications: The Future of 911

Linda K. Moore
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

Today's 911 system is built on an infrastructure of analog technology that does not support many of the features that most Americans expect to be part of an emergency response. Efforts to splice newer, digital technologies onto this aging infrastructure have created points of failure where a call can be dropped or misdirected, sometimes with tragic consequences. Callers to 911, however, generally assume that the newer technologies they are using to place a call are matched by the same level of technology at the 911 call centers, known as Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). This is not the case. Modernizing the system to provide the quality of service that approaches the expectations of its users will require investments in new technologies. The general consensus is that these new technologies, collectively referred to as Next Generation 911 or NG9- 1-1, should incorporate Internet Protocol (IP) standards. An IP-enabled emergency communications network that supports 911 will facilitate interoperability and system resilience; improve connections between 911 call centers; provide more robust capacity; and offer flexibility in receiving and managing calls. 

Recognizing the importance of providing effective 911 service, Congress has passed three major bills supporting improvements in the handling of 911 emergency calls. The most recent of these—the NET 911 Improvement Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-283)—required the preparation of a National Plan for migrating to an IP-enabled emergency network. Responsibility for the plan was assigned to the E-911 Implementation Coordination Office (ICO), created to meet requirements of an earlier law, the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-494). ICO is co-administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). In recent years, DOT has taken a leadership role in developing NG9-1-1 programs. 

Even though authorization for ICO terminated on September 30, 2009, the National Plan was not completed until September 25, 2009, leaving no time for ICO to act on issues raised by the plan. If ICO and DOT programs are not renewed or replaced, the only federal agency with a continuing role in implementing national policies to improve 911 systems and services will be the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

Legislation has been introduced that would create an "improved" ICO to focus on advancing the fundamental policy goal of creating an IP-enabled emergency communications network (H.R. 4829, Representative Eshoo). The recreated ICO would be established for five years under the direction of the NTIA, not jointly administered with a DOT agency. ICO would oversee a grant program that would be authorized for $250 million a year over five years. States that redirected fees collected for 911 to other uses would not be eligible for grants; a similar provision was part of the grant program created by the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004. 

Other types of citizen-activated emergency calls are handled in call centers. Increasingly many calls for assistance are placed by dialing 211. The number has been provisionally designated for community information and referrals. Service levels and response times for 211 calls would benefit from a transition to IP-enabled networks and in many cases could share infrastructure with 911 networks. Legislation introduced in the 111th Congress includes two bills covering 211 call centers: S. 211 (Senator Clinton) and H.R. 211 (Representative Eshoo).


Date of Report: March 16, 2010
Number of Pages: 35
Order Number: RL34755
Price: $29.95

Document available electronically as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail congress@pennyhill.com or call us at 301-253-0881.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Patent Reform in the 111th Congress: Innovation Issues

Wendy H. Schacht
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

John R. Thomas
Visiting Scholar

Congressional interest in patent policy and possible patent reform has expanded as the importance of intellectual property to innovation has increased. Patent ownership is perceived as an incentive to the technological advancement that leads to economic growth. However, growing interest in patents has been accompanied by persistent concerns about the fairness and effectiveness of the current system. Several recent studies, including those by the National Academy of Sciences and the Federal Trade Commission, recommended patent reform to address perceived deficiencies in the operation of the patent regime. Other experts maintain that major alterations in existing law are unnecessary and that the patent process can adapt, and is adapting, to technological progress. 

Pending patent reform proposals would work significant legal changes to the patent system. Among the more notable of these proposed changes is a shift to a first-inventor-to-file priority system; substantive and procedural modifications to the patent law doctrine of willful infringement; and adoption of post-grant review proceedings, prior user rights, and pre-issuance publication of all pending applications. Several of these proposals have been the subject of discussion within the patent community for many years, but others are more novel propositions. 

Current legislative reform efforts (H.R. 1260, S. 515, and S. 610) also would address several issues of concern, including the quality of issued patents, the expense and complexity of patent litigation, harmonization of U.S. patent law with the laws of our leading trading partners, potential abuses committed by patent speculators, and the special needs of individual inventors, universities, and small firms with respect to the patent system. In addition, although the existing patent statute in large measure applies the same basic rules to different sorts of inventions, regardless of the technological field of that invention, the patent system is widely believed to impact different industries in varying ways. 

The provisions of the proposed legislation would arguably work the most sweeping reforms to the U.S. patent system since the nineteenth century. However, many of these proposals, such as preissuance publication and prior user rights, have already been implemented in U.S. law to a more limited extent. These and other reforms, such as the first-inventor-to-file priority system and postgrant review proceedings, also reflect the decades-old patent practices of Europe, Japan, and our other leading trading partners. 

Other observers are nonetheless concerned that certain of these proposals would weaken the patent right, thereby diminishing incentives for innovation. Some also believe that changes of this magnitude, occurring at the same time, do not present the most prudent course for the patent system. Patent reform therefore confronts Congress with difficult legal, practical, and policy issues, but also with apparent possibilities for altering and possibly improving the legal regime that has long been recognized as an engine of innovation within the U.S. economy. 
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Date of Report: March 16, 2010
Number of Pages: 48
Order Number: R40481
Price: $29.95

Document available electronically as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail congress@pennyhill.com or call us at 301-253-0881.