The Economic Promise of Nanotechnology

Congress must continue to support U.S. leadership in this field as a key component of future national prosperity.

As a U.S. senator, I have championed several initiatives over the past several years to nurture U.S. leadership in innovation. Perhaps none was more exciting than sponsoring the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research & Development Act, which was signed into law by President Bush on December 3, 2003. Together with my hardworking friend and colleague, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), we were successful in launching the National Nanotechnology Program, which became the single largest federally funded, multiagency scientific research initiative since the space program in the 1960s, securing $3.63 billion over four years.

As a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Transportation, and Space, I held the first congressional hearings on nanotechnology. The committee quickly recognized that the fields of nanoscience, nanoengineering, and nanotechnology have the real potential to transform almost every aspect of our lives and commerce. Whether it is related to electronic devices, biotechnology, the health sciences, agriculture, energy, transportation, or national defense, nanotechnology will form the foundation for revolutionary discoveries and advancements in the decades to come, and will soon occupy a major portion of our economy.

Because this country has been the leader in virtually every important and transformative technology since the Industrial Revolution, I have made U.S. competitiveness in nanotechnology a priority in the Senate. Almost every country that supports scientific and technological research has a nanotechnology research program. To ensure that the United States is well positioned to participate and benefit as much as possible from this emerging field of science, this country must take an active role in creating the conditions necessary for our researchers and innovators to compete, contribute, and succeed both domestically and internationally.

As recognized with the passage of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, the federal government can play an important role in the development of nanotechnology by supporting education and basic research. This legislation provides an organized, coordinated, and responsible approach to nanotechnology research and development (R&D) across the entire federal government. It will catalyze the synergistic interdisciplinary science and engineering research through grants to individual scientists and interdisciplinary teams of investigators. Moreover, this new law establishes a network of advanced technology facilities and collaborative research centers designed to accelerate nanotechnology R&D in our colleges and universities as well as in the private sector. In addition, the legislation requires the federal government to coordinate the budget requests of each of the various agencies involved in nanotechnology R&D.

Since fiscal year (FY) 2001, U.S. taxpayers have spent over $4 billion on nanotechnology research. Additionally, President Bush’s budget request for FY 2006 includes an additional $1 billion for research in nanotechnology across 11 federal agencies. According to a report recently released by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology, more than $1 billion will be spent in the United States on nanotechnology research in FY 2005. This represents roughly one-quarter of global government investment in nanotechnology. Moreover, the total annual R&D spending in the United States (federal, state, and private sector) now stands at approximately $3 billion, which represents one-third of approximately $9 billion in total worldwide spending by the public and private sectors. This investment has allowed the United States to lead the world in the number of enterprising companies focused on nanotechnology and in research output as measured by patents and publications.

The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research & Development Act recognizes and fosters the link between basic scientific research and job creation, which ultimately leads to greater prosperity for all Americans. In my state, Luna Innovations has entered into a new venture of converting the old tobacco warehouse district in Danville, Virginia, into one of the nation’s first manufacturing plants for nanomaterials. This facility will develop the building blocks for future-generation products with an emphasis on defense applications, such as extremely light body armor, radar-absorbing coatings, and even ultrasmall sensors or unpiloted aerial vehicles.

This venture, involving the Department of Defense along with local and company funding, is a genuine example of the powerful economic impact this technology will have on otherwise depressed regions. It will produce 54 high-tech jobs by 2006, with the potential for thousands of Virginia jobs in the long term as the industry develops. Southside Virginia has been working to transition from a traditional economy based on tobacco and textiles to newer industries that carry high promise in the future. With this project, Virginia stands to become a leader in one of the most important high-tech industries affecting U.S. progress in defense, materials engineering, and healthcare.

For the United States to remain competitive in this global market, it is essential that the nation keep its edge in this field, and nowhere does this matter more then in properly educating our young people. We all know that the best jobs in the future will go to those who are best prepared. For that reason, I am very concerned about the relatively small number of scientists and engineers that are matriculating in the United States compared to what is happening in other countries. The United States is graduating approximately 50,000 engineers a year, whereas India is graduating 150,000, and China 250,000. The United States needs more scientists, technologists, and engineers to remain competitive in this multidisciplinary field of study.

I believe that it is vitally important that United States be the world capital of innovation. And for future generations to compete successfully, they will need to have a firm knowledge of new technologies and their applications—including multifaceted nanotechnology used in everything from advanced life sciences to flexible microelectronics. For these reasons, I recently formed the first bipartisan and bicameral Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus, which I hope will further raise awareness and help our citizens gain a better understanding of nanotechnology. This caucus has served as a gateway to Congress for academic and industry leaders and thus far has been a huge success, with over 30 members of Congress actively participating.

I am increasingly convinced that U.S. economic competitiveness in the global marketplace depends on success in developing a vibrant and innovative nanotechnology community. For my part, I am committed to ensuring that Virginia and the country play an important leadership role in this next revolution. I will continue to advocate, support, and promote this field of science as it will take many years of sustained investment both in our education system and in basic research labs for this field to achieve its full potential as we adapt, innovate, and improve.

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Cite this Article

Allen, George. “The Economic Promise of Nanotechnology.” Issues in Science and Technology 21, no. 4 (Summer 2005).

Vol. XXI, No. 4, Summer 2005