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Challenges for Sustaining Leadership in Nanotechnology in the U.S.

Written by: 
Jeff Morse, PhD

Chess Board
The U.S. investment in nanoscience and technology since 2001 through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has provided a “catalytic and substantial impact” according to the recent report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which offered an assessment of the first ten years of the NNI along with recommendations for future investments and directives. The report further acknowledged the NNI investment has met its intended goals and objectives, including U.S. leadership in fundamental research in nanotechnology and economic impact in the form of job creation and establishment of new industries.

While the latter is difficult to assess directly since many nanotechnology related jobs exist within established industries that have naturally evolved into nanotechnology R&D, conservative estimates of 160,000 U.S. jobs that support the manufacturing of nano-enabled products is a major step towards the 800,000 workers projected for nanotechnology by 2015. In part, the economic downturn has had an impact on growth over the past 2 years with reduced demand for nanomaterials and nano-intermediates, slower adoption of technology and nanomanufacturing platforms, and decreased market projections resulting in small firms going out of business and state and regional initiatives stalling.

In the midst of this less than rosy outlook there remains optimism in the ability of the U.S. to correct the course from which nanomanufacturing will be well positioned to lead the way for future economic growth. In this context, the NNI is considering ways in which to provide the necessary infrastructure both to parlay its investment in nanotechnology into sustainable economic growth and to augment existing technology manufacturing capabilities. These were some of the key recommendations made in the PCAST report which cited increased emphasis on nanomanufacturing and commercialization of nano-enabled products, increased commitment to workforce training and education in nanofabrication, and strengthening and consolidating efforts and knowledge in environmental, health, and safety research. That said, the U.S. and NNI face significant challenges in achieving these objectives while maintaining global leadership in nanotechnology overall. While the U.S. still leads the world in nanotech innovation by virtue of its size, Japan, Germany, and South Korea are doing a better job of bringing technology to market, according to Lux Research. In terms of sheer volume, the U.S. dominated the rest of the world in nanotech funding and new patents last year, as U.S. government funding, corporate spending, and VC investment in nanotech collectively reached $6.4 billion in 2009. But according to a new report from Lux Research, countries such as China and Russia launched new challenges to U.S. dominance in 2009, while smaller players such as Japan, Germany, and South Korea surpassed the United States in terms of commercializing nanotechnology and products. The report further pointed to the U.S. capacity to commercialize these technologies and leverage them for sustainable economic growth. U.S. competitiveness in long-term innovation is also at risk, as the relative number of science and engineering graduates in its population is significantly lower than it is in other countries.

This last point hits home in a critical way as it becomes necessary to retain an educated workforce in nanotechnology within the U.S., and many graduates from other countries take employment elsewhere, essentially bringing that training, education, and competitiveness back to those countries. To address this issue, effective programs must be established to retain graduates within the U.S. having strategic backgrounds and expertise through various means including visa extensions and other incentives. Additionally, expansion of education and workforce training programs is essential to facilitate a broader, more sustainable infrastructure providing a workforce trained in nanotechnology at levels ranging from high school to post-doctoral levels. To facilitate the necessary workforce education and training, NSF has funded new education initiatives and the PCAST report has recommended improved coordination around education and workforce issues. In order to provide multidisciplinary education and training, many universities and two year colleges are anticipating the next generation needs of industry and have established nanotechnology-focused curriculum including hands on training in order to address these needs.

Examples of this include, but are not limited to, Pennsylvania State University, which has been part of a state initiative to train workers in nanofabrication, the University of Minnesota which has followed suit with a similar program called NanoLink, and the College of Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) at the University of Albany, which has both undergraduate and graduate programs focused in nanotechnology, as well as business degree concentrations in nanotechnology. These are prime examples of strategies to educate our future workforce on sustaining emerging nanomanufacturing industries and to foster the creative, entrepreneurial mindset necessary to incubate new companies and industries that will exploit the next generation of nano-enabled products. Increased investment by the NNI with emphasis on workforce development and commercialization are two key steps towards sustainable economics. This commitment will further attract corporate spending and venture capital investment which will continue to build the necessary infrastructure in nanomanufacturing. The challenge then becomes sustainability, both from an economic growth standpoint and from the standpoint of  retaining jobs within the U.S. This will require additional strategies in establishing high technology jobs and manufacturing infrastructure that is impervious to outsourcing, a further goal of the NNI.

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