On December 28, 2010, the US Reauthorization Act of 2010 (H.R. 5116), entitled 'America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES)' was presented to President Obama for signature. Importantly for nano stakeholders, the bill, which unanimously passed by the Senate on the 17th December 2010, does not include reauthorization of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The House passed similar legislation on May 28, 2010, and that legislation would have reauthorized the NNI.
This last minute legislative change was not what nano stakeholders wanted or expected. It means, of course that the NNI, the program that just celebrated with much fanfare its 10-year anniversary, the program created to coordinate U.S. nanotechnology research and development (R&D), has eluded reauthorization for the third straight Congressional session. This brief article explores what the absence of reauthorization means exactly.
Before answering this question, some background is necessary. Work at the federal level to coordinate nano initiatives began years earlier, but it was not until the Clinton Administration's 2001 budget submission to Congress that nanoscale science and technology was raised to the level of a federal initiative and officially referred to as the NNI. The NNI is managed within the framework of the Nanoscale Science Engineering and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The NSTC is composed of representatives from agencies participating in the NNI and is a Cabinet-level council though which the President coordinates science, space, and technology policies across the federal government.
The 21st Century Research and Development Act (Public Law 108-153) was enacted in 2003. The Act established a more formal legal and organizational framework for the NNI, recognized its importance to an even greater extent, and defined the role of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) as the Secretariat of the NSET Subcommittee managing its day-to-day activities. The NNCO's Director, Dr. Clayton Teague, and its Deputy Director, Dr. Sally Tinkle, are two high-profile international nano celebrities whose contributions and leadership have been indispensible to the success of the NNI and the commercialization in the U.S. (and indirectly globally) of nanotechnology generally.
When originally passed by Congress in 2007, the America COMPETES Act reauthorized the NNI and gave it some direction in terms of grant funding and goals. The House of Representatives has been trying to reauthorize this program since 2008 and has deliberated on the legislation over the last three sessions of Congress.
In 2010, by a vote of 228-130, the House cleared legislation to reauthorize spending on a variety of science, education, and technology programs at federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology and it included a provision to reauthorize the NNI. The Senate unanimously passed the measure, which would reauthorize the 2007 America COMPETES Act, on December 17, 2011. The version that passed the Senate and was enacted into law contains no reference to nanotechnology.
Given this background, and the fact that NNI reauthorization has been in play for years, the question presented is what does the absence of reauthorization mean? In the near term and operationally, the answer is probably not much. The NNI will continue to operate under its original legislation and its operation is not time-limited.
The absence of reauthorization over the longer term, however, may invite more ominous and potentially adverse implications. In that the purpose of a reauthorization is to provide guidance and instruction to the NNCO regarding what Congress wishes, the absence of such guidance and direction could be misinterpreted as a lack of Congressional interest and/or fiscal year support. The fact that President Obama's (FY) 2012 budget request submitted on February 14, 2011, seeks an increase of $201 million in the NNI's budget to $2.1 billion suggests that the Administration appreciates the importance of the NNI and the value of its work in supporting R&D efforts to commercialize nanotechnology. It remains to be seen, however, what the Congressional budget approval process does to this budget request and it is entirely possible this number could be flattened or even reduced. As the relentless pressure to reduce federal funding increases, the absence of reauthorization could cause the NNI to get lost in the shuffle, as it were, and diminish the stature and critical role of the NNI as a 'central locus of communication, cooperation, and collaboration for all Federal agencies' for all things nano.
Another regrettable implication is the message that Congress may inadvertently be sending in repeatedly not reauthorizing the NNI. The competitive pressure globally to be first in nano is intense. To ensure the U.S. remains competitive and that the NNI receive the benefit of Congressional guidance and direction on priorities that reflect Congressional constituent interests, the NNI should be reauthorized. Also, in some international forums, the lack of Congressional reauthorization might be taken as a sign of reduced interest on the part of our government in maintaining its current leadership role. Reauthorization legislation should be initiated promptly and nano stakeholders are urged to do what they can to make this happen.