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House earmarks billions for nanotech

The House of Representatives gives a big boost to a tiny technology, voting to increase funding that could lead to molecule-size computers that travel the human bloodstream.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
WASHINGTON--The U.S. Congress is preparing to spend bigger money on smaller technology.

Saying the legislation would increase research into microprocessors and information technology, the House of Representatives approved additional nanotechnology spending by a 405 to 19 vote on Wednesday afternoon.

The Nanotechnology Research and Development Act budgets $2.36 billion over three years, an average of $787 million annually, for nanotechnology research and grants to universities and private corporations. That's less than the White House's request for $847 million next year, and about 10 percent more than the current level of federal spending of $774 million.

"The American people could see great advances in materials, manufacturing...telcommunications, and computing as a result of this research, John Linder, R-Ga., said during a floor discussion that lasted almost three hours. He said nanotechnology is "one of the most promising and exciting fields of science today."

Nanotechnology refers to working with materials in the 1- to 100-nanometer range, a process that could create useful new substances, aid in medicine and accelerate computers. Nanotechnology's proponents hope to revolutionize the way manufacturing works. Instead of grinding, milling and sawing materials through inefficient, top-down processes, materials would be manipulated at the molecular level.

As previously reported by CNET News.com, scientists at IBM Research have discovered a new way to force carbon nanotubes to emit light, which could eventually lead to advances in fiber-optic technology. Hewlett-Packard is trying to develop molecular circuits for chips.

During Wednesday's discussion, there was little opposition to increased federal funding. Instead, before approving the overall spending bill by an overwhelming margin, politicians jousted over amendments about "social and ethical concerns" relating to nanotech.

By voice vote, the House agreed to an amendment proposed by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, that would create a citizen's advisory committee of "nonscientific and nontechnical" Americans with the task of considering the possible threat of nanotechnology.

This is "a simple amendment that allows for some type of public input as we move along into this new area of nanotechnology," Johnson said. Without her amendment, Johnson said, "we'll have a lot of demonstrators that will be marching to find out what's going on."

Johnson was referring to the fear that if hypothetical nanomachines--which do not exist--escape from the lab and reproduce in the wild, they could wreak havoc on the planet.

Because the business of nanotechnology is still in its early stages, no specific regulatory proposals have been advanced so far. But the liberal ETC Group has called for a global moratorium on manufacturing nanomaterials, and Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy famously warned that mankind must not unleash nanotechnology because it could "destroy the biosphere on which all life depends." Michael Crichton's novel "Prey," published last year, ponders what would happen if malicious, fictitious nanobots escaped from a lab.

Also during the debate, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, offered and then withdrew a related amendment that would have created a "Center for Societal, Ethical, Educational, Environmental, Legal, and Workforce Issues Related to Nanotechnology."

"We've seen a troubling development in the have-nots of our society finding themselves on the wrong end of the technological divide," Jackson-Lee said. "Change has not made its way into every area of our community. People are being left behind...(I want to) ensure that nanotechnology works for all Americans."

Likening the threat of problematic nanotech to the fast-growing kudzu plant, Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., said it was prudent to be cautious. "Now 7 million acres of the South are covered by kudzu," Miller said. "It covers crops, it covers barns, it covers houses. Many of us suspect we have lost slow-moving relatives to the kudzu. I very much want to make sure that we're not turning loose upon the world a molecular atomic kudzu."

The bill would also:

•  Steer nanotech funds to "historically black colleges and universities and those serving large proportions of Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian-Pacific Americans, or other underrepresented populations."

• Establish a National Nanotechnology Research and Development Program that would work to commercialize nanotechnology. It would also be responsible for evaluating "the potential implications of human performance enhancement and the possible development of nonhuman intelligence."

• Divvy up the total funds among the National Science Foundation, which would receive nearly half, followed by the Department of Energy and other smaller recipients among federal agencies.

• Require the National Academy of Sciences to conduct periodic reviews of federal nanotech spending at least once every three years.

• Create a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, with a full-time staff, that will become a central point of contact for "government organizations, academia, industry, professional societies, and others to exchange technical and programmatic information."

The Senate is considering a parallel proposal called the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which has 13 sponsors.