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April 30, 2012

PCAST Releases Fourth Assessment of the NNI

The ACTA Group

On April 27, 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released the Report to the President and Congress on the Fourth Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which is a Congressionally mandated biennial review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). PCAST found that the NNI, which has provided $16 billion to date in investments by 26 federal agencies, “has had a ‘catalytic and substantial impact’ on the growth of the U.S. nanotechnology industry and should be continued.” PCAST states that, in large part due to the NNI, the U.S. “is today, by a wide range of measures, the global leader in this exciting and economically promising field of research and technological development.” The Obama Administration has proposed $1.8 billion in funding for fiscal year 2013 for 15 agencies with budgets dedicated to nanotechnology research and development (R&D). PCAST’s report is available online.

According to the report, the federal agencies in the NNI made substantial progress in addressing many of PCAST’s 2010 recommendations that were aimed at maintaining U.S. leadership in nanotechnology. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) states that one of NNI’s primary goals “is to stay ahead of heavily-investing competitors such as China, South Korea, the European Union, and Russia.” PCAST found that the U.S. federal government “continues to invest more in nanotechnology R&D than any other single country.” Overall, PCAST concluded that the NNI remains a successful cooperative venture that is supporting high-quality research, facilitating the translation of discoveries into new commercial products, and ensuring the Nation’s continued global leadership in this important field. PCAST “applauds the increased efforts of the National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office [(NNCO)] in the area of commercialization and coordination with industry and in the release of a focused research strategy for addressing environmental, health, and safety (EHS) implications of nanotechnology.”

PCAST noted that additional efforts are needed in four areas: strategic planning; program management; metrics for assessing impact; and increasing support for research on EHS issues associated with nanotechnology. According to PCAST, continued lack of attention to these concerns will make it harder for the U.S. to maintain its leadership role in the commercialization of nanotechnology. PCAST offers the following recommendations in these areas:

Strategic Planning

  • The NNCO, in partnership with OSTP, should work with the agencies to develop agency implementation plans for achieving the goals and objectives outlined in the 2011 NNI strategic plan;
  • Participating agencies should ensure that senior agency officials capable of influencing funding decisions are participating fully and personally in strategic planning activities of the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET). Officials at this level, in contrast with representatives active at the program or office level, could more effectively drive agency planning and budget allocations to meet NNI strategic directions;
  • The Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives should be fully supported in NNI budgets. To this end, PCAST recommends that the Office of Management and Budget increase funding to these Initiatives; and
  • The NSET Subcommittee should create Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives in other priority areas such as homeland security, national defense, and human health.

Program Management

OSTP should facilitate the following:

  • Appoint the NNCO Director as Co-Chair of the NSET Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC);
  • Change the requirement that the NNCO Director must come from within the federal government to allow external, non-federal experts the opportunity to direct the NNCO;
  • Create a standing PCAST Nanotechnology Steering Committee of experts from industry, academia, and civil society to provide more frequent and in-depth guidance to the overall initiative and to the signature initiatives;
  • Dedicate 0.3 percent of NNI funding to the NNCO to ensure the appropriate staffing and budget to develop, monitor, and assess effectively NNI programs; and
  • Work with the NNCO Director to develop a plan for increasing the NNCO budget in line with its new responsibilities.


  • Agencies should develop a mission-appropriate definition of nanotechnology that enables tracking specific nanotechnology investments supported at the program level. The definition and funding details should be published in agency implementation plans to promote clarity; and
  • The NNCO should track the development of metrics for quantifying the federal nanotechnology portfolio and implement them to assess NNI outputs.


The NSET should:

  • Establish high-level, cross-agency authoritative and accountable governance of federal nanotechnology-related EHS research so that the knowledge created as a result of federal investments can better inform policy makers; and
  • Increase investment in cross-cutting areas of EHS that promote knowledge transfer such as informatics, partnerships, and instrumentation development.