The National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendment Act has not exactly taken a high priority in the 111th Congress, especially set against the backdrop of the economic turmoil of the last six months. July 6th's nanotech caucus briefing, titled simply “Understanding the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI),” is the first hint in months that this piece of legislation may be ready to move after being stalled for almost a full year. So what are the various versions of the NNI Amendment Act, and where do they stand?
First, recall that the House has passed their version of the act twice – once as H.R. 5940 in June, 2008 (Roll Call 383 ) and a second time as H.R. 554 in February, 2009, at the very beginning of this current Congress. Even as the newly renumbered bill was being summarily passed though the House, attention was more on the billions of dollars in negotiation for the stimulus bill, as shown by the transcript of discussion on Feb. 11(see Congressional Record, p. 118301188). On February 12, H.R. 554 was received in the Senate, read twice, and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Meanwhile, the Senate has had its own version of the NNI bill, S. 3274, introduced to the Senate Commerce Committee on July 16, 2008 by John Kerry (D-MA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) among others.
The July 6 Nanocaucus briefing included 4 speakers, listed here in order of presentation: Travis Earles, National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) representative, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP); Clayton Teague, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO); Dahlia Sokolov, Staff Director, House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education; Brian Rice, Legislative Assistant, Sen. John Kerry (D MA), Chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet; and Brian Hendricks, office of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R TX), Minority Chief Counsel, Senate Commerce Committee.
Earles and Teague gave similar overviews of the NNI in general – mainly describing the management and oversight of this multi-agency collaboration. Here's the alphabet soup version, without all of the boxes, arrows, and qualifiers. (Warning: the following presentation is rated 5 on a scale of 1 – 5 for excessive use of acronyms and abbreviations. Check out GovSpeak for a cheat sheet of some of the most common ones).
OSTP basically sits at the top of the structure – the “P” stands for “policy” as well as the person ultimately responsible for it at a national level (POTUS). OMB is also in this upper tier; even OSTP is answerable to OMB. Beneath that is the NSTC which in turn manages the NSET subcommittee, which itself comprises 4 working groups: GIN, NEHI, NILI, and NPEC (the latter including public engagement and communication). The NNCO provides coordination as well as technical and administrative support to the entire NSET. PCAST and the NRC of the NAS provide oversight, with mandated periodic reports at regular, but apparently unenforced, intervals. Finally, some 25 different government agencies (including NSF, NIH, FDA, DoD DOE, EPA, NASA, etc.) contribute funds to create the cross-agency, multi-disciplinary NNI collaborative.
If you can't tell your GIN from your NEHI after the above description let me assure you that you are not alone. Even Travis Earles apologized for the excessive use of letters instead of words – apparently in OPTP there is a jar into which you have to throw change after the gratuitous use of an acronym. Despite this overabundance of agencies, offices and committees, there appear to still be gaps – in communications as well as in priorities.
Many of the general parameters of the House and Senate versions are similar. One concern is to maintain and strengthen the NNI infrastructure that has been developed so far, largely with the goal of gaining (or not losing) US leadership in nanotech. There is a commitment to continuing research about environmental, health, and safety (EHS) issues associated with the nano industry, though less agreement about how this should be framed and carried out. There is the desire to support commercialization of new products and application involving nanotechnology. And there is an shared acknowledgment of the importance of an effective campaign of public engagement to accompany this whole process.
Some of the main differences between the two bills have to do with education and public outreach – making this a blog-worthy topic for NISE Net. The House version sticks public engagement under nano manufacturing and identifies a database of programs and products as the most visible evidence of the education investments associated with the NNI. Support for education is mainly in the form of broader impacts associated with research or small business innovation grants. The impression is that broadscale public engagement is a side-effect, expected to be an outcome of research and commercialization without a lot more explicit attention. The Senate bill identifies public outreach as own topic, with a broader range of programs and links to EHS as well as industrial development. More importantly, the Senate Commerce Committee has been very receptive to the importance of informal science education. Staffers of this committee came to NanoDays on the Hill in 2008, and invited NISE Net to participate in the Nano Products showcase in March of 2009. The Senate version of the bill currently contains language that is inclusive of learning in informal settings, recognizing the role that science museums and other informal education organizations play in public engagement as well as professional development for all educators.
As the talks proceeded, it became clear to me that there is general agreement about the importance of transparency, disclosure, and communication with the public about decision-making and policy related to nanotechnology. But there is no consensus in this group about what “engagement” or “outreach” means. For the NNCO, it appears to be as simple as organizing a few workshops with businesses and printing a brochure. Teague seems genuinely satisfied with that – as if publics are all the same and read that stuff. Earles, however, is much more aware of the need for communication about STEM learning in general, not just nano. He cited a need for Web 2.0 technologies, and online social networking communities (also without disclosing additional details). It bothered me that there was no explicit mention of NISE Net in this context. Clearly we have not been as effective as we thought at communicating about our efforts, at least at this level.
My overall impression from this briefing is that there is definitely a plate of broadscale public engagement to step up to. There have been numerous caucus briefings on some aspect of communicating to the public about nano – many have including NISE Net representatives: Ray Vandiver (OMSI), Greta Zenner (U-Wisc. MRSEC), me (ASTC), Larry Bell, and Christine Reich (MoS). How do we take the next step to put us more visibly at this table? We had better do it sooner rather than later, before all the public outreach funding is spent on glossy brochures and workshops with business initiatives without the community programs we have been painstakingly creating and evaluating for a couple of years now.