Washington DC Nano News - Nano'$ Federal Fund$

Margaret Glass

authored by Margaret Glass, ASTC

Budgets have been rolling out all over DC in the past two weeks, and yesterday we finally got a glimpse of what might be in store for nanotechnology funding – more specifically, funding for education related to nano. In his testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology, John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) gave a detailed breakdown of funding levels for administrative science and technology initiatives, for each science agency, and for interagency initiatives like the NNI. How does it all look? In general, Obama appears to be living up to his reputation as a "science guy." Beyond rhetoric, concrete steps pointing in this direction include the appointment of high-profile scientists to Cabinet positions, elevation of OSTP to a fully staffed and integral role in the White House, and selection of a star-studded cast for the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) – all within the first 100 days. In comparison, the Bush administration took 11 months to even name a science advisor. When it comes to levels of funding, though, it’s tricky to follow the money. For example, 2010 funding for the entire Science, Technology and Innovation domain (STI) actually comes out to 0.7% less than the 2009 omnibus level, once a modest rate of inflation is factored in. This is explained away by changes in the relative proportions of R&D funding for defense vs. non-defense industries, and by the need to factor the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act a.k.a. "stimulus") funds into the picture. On close inspection, it seems that any real increase will be related to the ARRA funding, and only assuming little or no inflation. The picture is only a little clearer when it comes to specific science agencies. Here’s a rundown of some of those science agencies associated with large grant programs for education, formal and informal: 7.4% increase for NSF; $1 billion increase for NASA; 1.3% increase over 2009 levels for NOAA; DOE funding (minus non-R&D cleanup, weapons, and energy-demonstration programs - huh?) remains about the same as in FY2009 in real terms; NIH will see a 0.4% increase in real terms above FY2009. The fine print contains many more specifics about directions for funding, with targets of education and basic research repeatedly mentioned. But the liberal use of disclaimers and modifying phrases in Holdren's testimony, like "commitment to a balanced …program" and "maintaining … our capabilities…" and "modest overall gain," are vaguely disquieting if only because of their careful scripting. The language and numbers are hard to compare across agencies and categories of spending, possibly deliberately so. When added in, ARRA funding makes the biggest difference for all of these agencies. But Recovery Act funds come with a limited timeline, specific goals, and accountability requirements that can make them difficult to administer and use. Despite a valiant attempt at transparency (e.g. Recovery.gov), I suspect we won’t know where that money should go until it’s long gone. So what’s in store for nanotechnology? At $1.6 billion, the NNI is funded at slightly less in FY2010 than the 2009 level. But a reassuring comparison: this is about one-seventh of the total allocated to NSF ($7 billion) and exceeds the $1.1 billion allocation for the entire USGS. As we all know from Nano101, a billion is A LOT! How is this $1.6 billion going to be spent? Here’s the good news/bad news. The good news is: funding priority is given to Environmental Health, and Safety (EHS) Research, with $88 million requested for EHS. An additional $36 million is allocated for nano education and societal dimensions research – that’s us! These numbers represent 20% and 7% increases over the respective 2009 levels. Now for the bad news. Responsible development of nanotechnology will be carried out "consistent with the NNI Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental Health, and Safety (EHS) Research." This is the strategy described as having serious shortcomings by a National Research Council panel in February of this year. Can the shortcoming cited by the NRC be overcome by the extra money allocated to EHS and education? That might help, but it seems like a bigger commitment to basic research in some of the other related agencies would be necessary too. From my read of the original document and report, I’m not sure a strategy can be created by just throwing money in that direction. But at least now some numbers are on the table – maybe the NNI Amendment Act will start to move.