Congressional Research Service
[Summary] 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 worlds first national nanotechnology program. Since then, the federal government has invested approximately $9.9 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. In FY2009 NNI funding is estimated to be approximately $1.5 billion. 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 pay-off 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. The Senate has not considered the legislation.
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.