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Catching the nano wave

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says getting funding for the nanotechnology Manhattan Project is the right idea. But is anybody listening?

Once in a while, a big idea comes along that is all but impossible to resist.

A proposal is now making the rounds to create a partnership between government, academia and the semiconductor industry to foster advanced nanotechnology research in the United States.

Technology investment stories don't usually offer A-type material for campaign commercials.

With most folks' attention focused on Swift boats and baseball races during this year's silly fall season, you may have missed the news--but this is an idea that deserves serious attention.

As the end of the complementary metal oxide semiconductor, or CMOS, life cycle approaches, chipmakers find themselves in a race to catch the wave of the next big technology trend. Consensus opinion has it that we're talking about nanotechnology.

That's why the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), a trade consortium representing American chipmakers, wants to create a Nanoelectronics Research Initiative. If the plan comes alive, a select number of universities will become test grounds for the development of advanced nanotechnologies.

"We can't even think about not doing this," said George Scalise, a veteran chip hand who now heads the trade group. "We have to make it happen."

Then there's the reality of our budget-constrained times. The obvious problem is money--or more accurately, the lack thereof. Who's going to pay? With a huge budget deficit that's only going to widen in the foreseeable future, Uncle Sam will not want to fund any new big initiatives--and this one's not cheap.

Once the project gets rolling, Scalise estimates that it will cost about $200 million a year. When you also consider that it may take more than 15 years before any products get to market, that's asking a lot.

Playing it safe won't cut the mustard.
So far, the SIA has shied away from directly approaching the Bush or Kerry campaigns out of fear of politicizing the proposal. But why walk on eggshells? The current administration has already gone on the record in support of policies to promote U.S. global leadership in nanotech. In fact, the president even signed something into law called the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act late last year.

Technology investment stories don't usually offer A-type material for presidential campaign commercials. But in this instance, I would think a little creative thinking could overcome the conventional wisdom. After all, what's more important to the nation's economic leadership than a nuts-and-bolts program to foster the intellectual and scientific talent of future generations?

You can also wave away the doctrinaire free-market objections by pointing out historical precedent. In the mid-1980s, Japanese companies were steamrolling American chipmakers. But the industry rallied to create the Sematech consortium, enabling the participants to successfully collaborate on new process technologies. Sematech alone didn't save the U.S. semiconductor business. But it no doubt provided a huge lift.

So how do you get the attention of the current and would-be bloviator-in-chief? Playing it safe won't cut the mustard. Scalise is an able and considerate man, but the SIA should farm this particular task out to somebody else. Cypress Semiconductor's T.J. Rodgers is my choice.

Rodgers is the rare technology executive with the brass to say what's really on his mind--a rare commodity in these oh-so-scripted times in Silicon Valley. At the very least, he'd be good for a few headlines. And then if the politicians decided to let this opportunity lapse, they'd only have themselves to blame.