Universities compete for NSF nanotech program worth millions

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July 15, 2003 — The National Science Foundation is hip deep in selecting a group of universities to host a sweeping nanotech research effort, the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN). Schools across the country have teamed up into various consortia vying for the project, worth as much as $140 million over the next decade.

The NNIN will be a much larger and more comprehensive version of the National Nanofabrication Users Network (called the NNUN). Managed by five schools, the NNUN was founded in 1993 to help academic and industry researchers create nanostructures. The NNUN, in turn, sprung from initial nanotech research funded by the National Science Foundation stretching back to 1983.

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The NSF is required by law to bid out the operation of significant projects such as the NNUN every 10 years. Agency officials took advantage of that rule to update their goals and craft a network that better reflects contemporary demand for nanotech research. The scope of nanotech investment since 1993, said Lawrence Goldberg, senior engineering adviser at the NSF, “has grown and changed. … This will be much larger.”

Businesses will stand to gain from the NNIN because much of its resources will be dedicated to “outside users” — industrial researchers, other academics not in the network, and government agencies. The NSF wants outside users to account for at least half the activity of whichever NNIN proposal it selects. That means schools close to business centers or with a strong track record of academic-industry cooperation are more likely to impress.

Goldberg would not say how important that criteria will be as the NSF reviews proposals, but “we hope those connections will be made.”

Significant new features of NNIN include:

· Larger size. The NNUN had only five member schools (led by Cornell and Stanford universities) located mostly in southern California and the Northeast. The NNIN is expected to have at least 10 member schools and possibly more, geographically scattered around the country.

· More diverse research. The NNUN focused merely on how to create basic nanostructures. Now the NNIN will address problems such as how to measure and control nanostructures and study their characteristics.

· New applications. NNUN research primarily addressed nanoscale electronics. In contrast, NNIN research will encompass the full range of nanotech applications, including newer fields such as life sciences and energy, which didn’t really exist 10 years ago. Also included will be study of the “social implications” of nanotech research and outreach to educate a new generation of workers in nanoscale sciences.

· More money. Ideally, the NSF wants to put $14 million a year into the NNIN for the next 10 years. The 2004 request is for only $11.4 million and the final number will depend on what Congress approves by the next fiscal year on Oct. 1 — but it is still more than double the $5.6 million the NNUN receives.

Not surprisingly, engineering schools are wildly enthusiastic about NNIN and the lucrative funding opportunity it represents. The NSF won’t say how many bids it has received, but the rumor mill among engineering professors is that four or five teams submitted proposals. Two teams are confirmed: the original five NNUN schools plus several newcomers, and a group led by MIT, the University of Illinois and the University of California, Berkeley.   

All proposals had to be submitted by May. Goldberg said the NSF will review the plans this summer, and likely select a winner by November or December. The NSF will grant only one award for the NNIN, although administrators say they might cherry-pick the best elements of competing proposals and combine them into one network.

Academics involved in the bidding say the NNIN is vital, because while many schools can now offer basic nanofabrication facilities to industry and other researchers, few can afford the costly equipment necessary to develop nanomanufacturing techniques.

“This is the next logical step,” said Gary Harris, an electrical engineering professor at Howard University. Howard is part of the expanded NNUN group bidding for the project.

Proponents of NNIN also say a crucial element of the project will be study of nanotechnology’s social implications — which, to the chagrin of many researchers, so far have been painted in unflattering lights in Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel “Prey” and other popular books and movies. Goldberg at the NSF and others hope the NNIN will put an end to bad public perceptions.

“The nanotech community wants to avoid the huge problems the genetically modified food people got themselves into,” said Trevor Thornton, a professor at Arizona State University and part of the MIT-led team.

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