We reflect on some aspects of the newly updated plan of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative.
On 31 October the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) published its 2016 Strategic Plan (www.nano.gov/node/1676). The document updates the previous version of the strategic plan from February 2014, and intends to highlight the priorities that all the federal agencies participating in the NNI agreed upon for the next three years. It is perhaps fair to say that the document does not contain big surprises, and that the main updates had already been announced during the past couple of years. We feel, however, that it is worth reflecting on some aspects that emphasize the way in which the US funding bodies intend to approach nanotechnology in the next few years.
The NNI remains founded on four main objectives that can be summarized as the advance of research and development, the commercialization of new nanotechnologies, the fostering of nanotechnology education and the support for the responsible development of nanotechnology. It is clear however that commercialization is high on the NNI agenda. The document spotlights (1) an initiative launched in October 2015 to advance the commercialization of nanotechnology inventions related to cancer, (2) a public–private partnership for the realization of technology to monitor human performance, and (3) the Department of Agriculture's efforts to commercialize cellulosic nanomaterials for a range of applications.
Also notable is the evolution of the Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (NSIs). The launch in March this year of the NSI for Water Sustainability marked a clear aspiration to tackle a global issue, which is becoming more and more pressing for the US itself. Conversely, it is interesting to learn that the NSI for Solar Energy Collection and Conversion was retired, primarily because “a robust research ecosystem has been established to support nanotechnology-based solar energy R&D.” In a way this can be seen as a testimony of the transient nature of the NNI, whose goal seems to create the foundations for research and commercialization of nanotechnology.
Arguably the most obvious update from the 2014 version of the strategy plan is the introduction of the nanotechnology-inspired grand challenges and the following launch of the first one in October 2015 — the realization of a new type of computer. Although assessing their efficacy will require time, the concept of the grand challenges, which should interest public and private funding alike, is certainly intriguing. Unfortunately, the concept was also strictly related to President Obama's approach to scientific and technological development. Given the uncertainty at this stage regarding Donald Trump's approach to science, it would have been desirable to see a second announcement before election day on 8 November. Now we'll probably have to wait till the first review of the programme in October 2017 to learn something about the future of the grand challenges, and perhaps of the US nanotechnology programme altogether.