Nanotech bill gives field a boost

In a vote of confidence that nanotechnology might be the next big thing, Congress has passed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. The law authorizes $3.7 billion in spending on nanotechnology over 4 years starting Oct. 1, 2004. It also calls for the creation of a national research hub–the American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center–charged with investigating the societal, ethical, and environmental implications of this rapidly growing field.

Nanotechnology is the study and manipulation of materials on atomic and molecular scales measured in billionths of a meter. Scientists propose that such research could lead to more-precise medical therapies, ultrafast computing devices, and new materials that can clean up the environment. However, the effects of nanomaterials on the body and the environment remain unclear.

Wary that nanotechnology could suffer the same political setbacks that have slowed adoption of genetically modified crops, researchers and policy makers are trying to get ahead of the game.

In August, the National Science Foundation awarded $1 million each to the University of South Carolina in Columbia and the University of California, Los Angeles to study the societal and ethical impacts of nanotechnology. Building on that, new interdisciplinary nanotechnology research centers authorized under the new act will be required to study the impacts of their work.

“With this congressional seal of approval, it gives nanotechnology a high profile in the government,” says Kristen Kulinowski, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University in Houston.


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