Nanotechnology R&D bills move through Congress

Nanotechnology R&D bills move through Congress

The House and Senate have worked out differences in bills to fund and oversee R&D in the potentially controversial field of nanotechnology.

The Senate passed its version of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act on Tuesday. House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said he expected the House to pass its version of the bill soon.

The compromise bills are the products of negotiations between the House Science Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials on an atomic and molecular scale, and offers great economic potential. The National Science Foundation has estimated it could become a $1 trillion industry over the next 10 years. But it also presents ethical and societal concerns because of the possible impact of tiny devices on the environment and on human beings.

The act would promote U.S. leadership in the development and application of nanotechnology, and also would ensure that government has a hand in developing and enforcing ethical standards for that research. Issues singled out for concern include the use of nanotechnology to enhance human intelligence and to create artificial intelligence, and the release of nanodevices into the environment.

The act would create a National Nanotechnology Program to coordinate interdisciplinary research. The National Institute of Standards and Technology would serve as a clearinghouse for R&D data and would develop standards for research.

The act also would authorize $3.7 billion for the program over the next four years, divided among the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, NIST and NSF. The lion's share of the money would go to NSF ($1.7 billion) and Energy ($1.4 billion). At least $10 million a year would be earmarked to fund interdisciplinary R&D consortia.

An American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center would be created to study 'societal, ethical, environmental, educational, legal and work force implications of nanotechnology.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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