Congress approves nanotechnology R&D bill

The House and Senate have passed a bill to fund and oversee research and development in the potentially controversial field of nanotechnology.

The Senate passed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act on Tuesday, and the House passed it today. House Science Committee chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said the president is expected to sign the bill.

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials on an atomic and molecular scale. This area of research offers a great deal of 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 microscopic devices in 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 research. Issues singled out for concern in the act 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 between the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department, NASA, NIST and the Environmental Protection Agency. 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 workforce implications of nanotechnology.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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