Future Directions

The nature of federal funding of academic research can be envisioned as tossing pebbles into a lake. Major research program solicitations tend to run for about five years, providing only the initial impact of the pebble on the water, with the expectation that the spreading rings will last much longer and spread much farther. The next pebble can fall in a completely different part of the lake, or it can fall in an overlapping area of the spreading rings, leading to interaction between rings in a region. Because of its impact, nanotechnology has already been given more pebbles to work with; nanotechnology support was extended beyond five years and further supported by Congress in December 2003 with the enactment of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act.®

Although the funding for nanotechnology will logically continue to shift from its current form, industrial interests are more likely to focus on the subsequent outcomes of earlier funded research. The hope, with concurrent funding in Manufacturing at the Nanoscale, is that the typical period that elapses between initial discovery and widespread commercializationsome 20 to 30 yearscan be shortened for nanotechnology.®

In the next few years, as commercial products and processes become more viable and more visible to the general public, the emphasis on environmental and health implications will grow. Already, federal agencies such as NIH, National Institute of Environmental Health Studies (NIEHS), NIOSH, and the EPA are establishing new multimillion-dollar initiatives in exposure, transport, detection, and toxicity of nanoparticles and other nanomaterials.®

Many of the initial discoveries were rooted in the extension of the quantum and molecular scales of physics and chemistry and the reduction of the microscales of microelectronics, but the most exciting future discoveries lie in the intersection and integration of several technologies and scales. Introduced even in the earliest NNI literature, this convergence of nanotechnology with biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive sciences is anticipated to lead to significant advances in human health, human performance, human productivity, and quality of life.

Such grand challenges are important because they ensure coordination among researchers from a wide range of backgrounds. Perhaps one of the most far-reaching benefits of the NNI has been its effectiveness in encouraging scientists, engineers, and social scientists to learn how to communicate with each other.

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