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Nanotech funding bill in the wings

An Oregon Democrat has big plans for small tech: A new bill would spur the development of nanotechnology by spending more government money on early-stage research.

Sen. Ron Wyden has big plans for small technology.

On Tuesday, the Oregon Democrat is planning to introduce a bill and convene a hearing to spur the development of nanotechnology by spending more government money on early-stage research.

A summary of the bill seen by CNET News.com says it will establish a "National Nanotechnology Research Program" to coordinate federal efforts in the area and balance research objectives with ethical and societal concerns. It will spend about $446 million, with a portion of that to come from existing money located elsewhere in the federal budget. Wyden's proposal matches President Bush's request for nanotech funding for the 2003 fiscal year and increases it by 15 percent for the next year.

"Sen. Wyden feels that missing the nanotechnology revolution would be somewhat akin to missing the computer revolution," Carol Guthrie, Wyden's press secretary, said Monday. "This is a field with almost unlimited potential, and America needs to stay at the forefront of this field. Sen. Wyden wants to make sure there's ample financial investment and ample organizational investment."

Nanotechnology refers to manipulating materials in the 1- to 100-nanometer range, which in theory will create remarkable new substances, aid in medicine, and accelerate computer chips. Last week, Intel announced that it was working with Harvard and other universities on silicon nanowires and carbon nanotubes, two experimental structures that could eventually replace standard transistors on chips.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the former Democratic vice presidential hopeful, will co-sponsor the bill, a spokeswoman said Monday afternoon.

Tuesday's hearing represents one of the first times that Washington officially looks at nanotechology. During the hearing, industry representatives are expected to demonstrate early examples of nanotech products: glowing quantum dots, stain resistant nano-pants, nano flat-screens, and so on.

Wyden chairs the Science, Technology and Space subcommittee that will meet Tuesday. Witnesses expected to testify include Richard Russell of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Northwestern University professor Sam Stupp, Stan Williams of HP Laboratories, and Mark Modzelewski, director of the Nanobusiness Alliance.

Founded in October 2001, the Nanobusiness Alliance is a trade association of companies hoping to develop commercial applications for nanotechnology. The alliance estimates that by 2003, investment in nanotech start-ups will be more than $1.2 billion--but argues that even with that influx of cash, the Wyden bill is still necessary.

"It's important that that (government) money be there since venture capitalists won't put their money in nanotech right now," said Nathan Tinker, the alliance's vice president. "It's a high-risk area right now, very emerging. Even though there are a few hundred million put into nanotech, it's still a small part of the overall funding needed to get nanotech out of the laboratory and into the marketplace."

Tinker said that "when you have something like nanotech that is so broad in its scope that it could affect every industry, it's not going to have that breadth of ability at the corporate level. You need these small companies working on individual small projects that grow into larger things."

No critics invited
No critic of Wyden's approach is expected to testify at Tuesday's hearing, but free-market advocates are critical of boosting government spending on nanotechnology.

"I suggest giving them nanodollars," Tom Miller, director of health policy at the Cato Institute, said of lobbying from nanotech businesses. "Since they can't find enough people with their own money at risk, their strategy is to take money out of a larger pot run by the government with nobody paying attention.

"These are folks trying to do this for a profit--they're not doing it for a sainted cause. Our society will richly reward them when they come up with a great idea. On the other hand, we can get all sorts of boondoggles and white elephants through government-funded research. The market may be telling them that it's not a good enough idea for someone to put some speculative capital in, it's not the right time, or they have to shop around more for funders."

In June, the Bush administration recommended a budget of $710 million for the existing National Nanotechnology Initiative for the fiscal year beginning in October. That would be an increase of about 17 percent, with the majority of the funds going to the National Science Foundation, the Defense Department and the Energy Department. Research organizations including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and the Los Alamos National Laboratory fall under the Department of Energy.

Currently the National Nanotechnology Initiative is organized under the White House's National Science and Technology Council. Wyden's bill, according to the summary, would formalize the arrangement and create a center focusing on ethical and societal challenges of nanotechnology.

The bill, titled the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, would direct government nanotechnology grants to areas of the country with high unemployment rates.