National Nanotechnology Initiative


In the scramble to become the leader in nanotechnology research and development, no country wants to be left behind in what may be the most important new category of technology in the 21st century. To that end, in the past decade nations around the world have ramped up their investment in nanotech.

Nanotechnology emerged as a priority for research and development dollars for many nations in the mid 1990s. In the United States, the government first became involved in nanotechnology in 1996 through a series of informal planning meetings, which evolved into a permanent committee under the National Science and Technology Council. In 2001 the group proposed an amendment to the federal budget to provide money for nanotechnology researchers. With the approval of the budget, the government formed a new organization called the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Originally, the NNI was authorized to spend 500 million dollars to fund research, track progress in nanotechnology worldwide, and produce strategic plans; that figure has increased to over a billion dollars in 2005. That figure makes the United States the largest provider of nanotechnology research funding—but just barely.

Hot on the heels of the United States are Japan and the collected nations of Western Europe. In fact, the Japanese government can claim the distinction of being the first to create a national nanotechnology research program. Its official recognition of nanotechnology in 1990 was one of the sparks that ignited interest in Washington and the capitals of Europe. The Japanese Science and Technology Agency, which had funded several nanotechnology projects in the 1980s, made this type of research its major priority in the 1990s. Soon after that, another, more powerful, Japanese agency called the Ministry for Technology and Industry (MITI) asserted its presence in this area by announcing that it would provide funds to support the development of nano-scale electronic devices. Then, in, 1991 MITI made the dramatic announcement that it would launch a new research program aimed at creating an “atom factory” to produce nano-scale materials. By 2005, funding in Japan for nanotechnology research had reached 950 million dollars, a figure just shy of the combined federal and state contributions in the United States.

Similarly, the European Union countries were spending slightly over a billion dollars on nanotechnology research by this time. However, the European Union itself was struggling to create a cooperative agreement between the various nations that would allow EU coordination of the effort. What the EU described as the “European Research Area” was an organization proposed to achieve that coordination. First discussed in 2000, the ERA is still in the process of defining its goals and mustering the support of its member nations.

If, as these nations hope, the top-level coordination of research has the intended results, then it may be that the future of nanotechnology will be strongly shaped by governmental programs. Most likely, the vast sums of money being concentrated in nanotechnology will result in Japan, the U.S., and the European Union dominating the field for many years. However, it is also very likely that smaller efforts, such as private companies, universities, or the national centers for nanotechnology sponsored by Canada, Israel, Australia, and elsewhere, will also find ways to make significant or even crucial contributions in their fields of excellence.