TCS Daily


By Ryan H. Sager - March 19, 2002 12:00 AM

Even the smallest industries can be big porkers. Or make that "even industries that deal in the smallest things." Take semiconductors for instance. Small product, huge government research and development grants. And now it's time to count a new little piggy at the trough: nanotechnology.

Dealing in materials and machines tens-of-thousands of times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, nanotechnology is the "It" technology of the new millennium. Expected to yield immense gains in computing and medical research, just to name its two most prominent applications, nanotechnology tends to inspire science fiction fantasies (and fears) in those who track its progress.

With the industry already rapidly developing, President Clinton insinuated the federal government into matters in 2000 by establishing the National Nanotechnology Initiative with $270 million in funding. There was scarcely a campaign to attract federal dollars at the time, but now that the industry's boosters have acquired a taste for government grants, they are groping frantically to nudge the spigots open ever wider.

The signs of a full-scale lobbying campaign gearing up are readily apparent. First off, the NanoBusiness Alliance, the industry's public face, has hired itself a Washington big gun: former House speaker, and tireless futurist, Newt Gingrich. While the former congressman's actual time commitment to the group will be minor, his name and advocacy are clearly intended to leverage access to top level administration officials and key members of Congress.

The Alliance also held one of the first ever nanotech events in Washington last December, hosting a panel on nanotechnology in the Capitol building. Showing signs that nanotech's lobbying arm is already adept in the ways of Washington, the group tried to tie their panel to the War on Terrorism, claiming in an announcement that nanotech had already had "a major impact on homeland security."

The panel was co-sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic Party group, and featured a number of speakers calling for increased nanotech funding (and no speakers opposing federal involvement). Meyya Meyyappan, one of the invited speakers, claimed that corporations would not invest in basic nanotech research if they knew it would take 10 or 15 years to yield profitable results.

Despite the spuriousness of such statements, Congress may well swallow the nanotech lobby's arguments hook, line and sinker. There are very few congressmen opposed outright to government funding of scientific research, and probably none when that research occurs in their district. If it means a few tens-of-millions of dollars of other people's tax money flowing into your backyard, what's wrong with a little bit of nano-sized pork?

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) can be expected to become point man for nanotech funding in Congress. Early in March, he gave a speech at the Brookhaven Nanotechnology Conference, outright pledging to bring home the bacon. "I will do everything in my power to ensure that nanotechnology research gets the funding it deserves," the congressman said, "[and] I will do everything possible to see that a significant portion of that research takes place right here in New York."

Rep. Boehlert isn't likely to have too tough a time delivering on his promise since New York already receives a disproportionate amount of federal nanotech spending. Last year alone, three universities in New York - Columbia in New York City, and Cornell and Rensselaer Polytechnic upstate - received $32.4 million from the government's National Science Foundation. That was out of $65 million total awarded in grants to only six universities.

Admittedly, the numbers involved here are relatively small. Nanotech received $422 million in 2001 and is earmarked $518 million for 2002 - chump change when compared to farm subsidies or other corporate welfare giveaways. But there's no need to add a new industry to the government dole, especially when that industry is doing fine on its own; for instance, last year IBM pledged $150 million to the University of Albany to support Albany NanoTech, a research center at the school.

State funding of science assumes that private industry is not as wise or as clever as government bureaucrats are - a contention hardly worth dispelling. When there is huge profit to be made from technology that will improve cell phones, computers, telecommunications, fabrics, and medicines, and has potentially thousands of other applications, the market will lead the way. Quite aside from being a charity case, nanotech is hot. In a perhaps disturbing trend, for its resemblance to the .com era, companies are adding superfluous "nano"s to their names to attract investors.

The government should keep the spigot closed on nanotech (except for any defense applications it might wish to explore) and keep the industry a svelte little piglet.

Ryan H. Sager is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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