Ethics center a small obstacle as Senate nears nano bill passage

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Nov. 6, 2003 — The U.S. Senate is close to giving its long-awaited approval to a bill that would give nanotechnology a permanent home in the federal government, but passage is being held up in backroom debates over a proposed center to study societal and ethical issues.

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Sources say disagreements, including whether such a center would hinder the emerging industry’s progress, should be resolved soon.

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The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act would designate more than $2 billion to nanotech research and development during the next three years and set up a formal structure for coordination of research across agencies. It also would authorize a study of the emerging technology’s potential societal and ethical effects by establishing a center for societal, ethical and other issues.

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The proposed national nano ethics center excites David Berube, a communications professor and department head at the University of South Carolina, which recently received two related National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. If the government designates the university as the ethics center’s permanent home, Berube would be its manager.

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He said that such a center would ensure objectivity and substance. “The truth is, if we don’t have this nano center … a bunch of public relations firms are going to take up the mantle of this,” he said.

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Berube said getting the contract, worth around $25 million over five years, would greatly expand the efforts he and his colleagues have already begun. The university has received two related grants; the latest, announced in August, brings in more than $1 million from the NSF to study societal and ethical issues surrounding nanotechnology.

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“One of the beauties of this whole bill is it creates a freestanding bureaucracy. Once you establish (that), … it develops a life of its own,” he said. “The (five-year time frame) provides a degree of permanence you don’t normally see in a lot of projects funded by the federal government.”

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Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., first introduced a nanotech bill last year in the Senate. The Commerce Committee supported it, but the full Senate never acted before the 107th Congress adjourned. It was again introduced earlier this year by Sen. George Allen, R.-Va., who took over from Wyden as chairman of the Senate Science, Technology and Space subcommittee.

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House and Senate leaders have worked to ensure the language is acceptable to both bodies. The compromise bill, once passed by the Senate, must go back to the House for a vote before reaching President Bush’s desk for his expected signature.

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Chris Fitzgerald, Wyden’s press secretary, described the private negotiations as “typical maintenance” necessary as a bill is prepared for the Senate floor.

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“Sen. Wyden understands nanotech’s importance to the future economy,” he said. “He’s very pleased to see us so close to getting it signed into law.”

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Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the New York-based trade group NanoBusiness Alliance, said the holdup is a result of the “usual stuff” that comes up before a vote.

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“At the last minute, there certainly are a lot of members who aren’t completely engaged in the discussion for a variety of reasons,” he said. “They might try to offer up some new ideas, try to tweak it. … So much of it’s worked out ahead of time.”

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Mike Roco, director of the National Nanotechnology Initiative and senior nanotech adviser for the NSF, said much of the effort and coordination among agencies described in the bill has been under way for a while. But he sees the legislation more as a symbolic victory of nano’s impact and potential.

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“The main role of the bill is in fact this recognition of the field and its importance,” Roco said. After the bill’s passage, he said, nanotechnology would be “recognized in an official document by the Congress … as a key technology for the U.S. future.”

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He said the challenge now comes in setting priorities in nanotech’s key areas as they move from basic concepts to technological innovation and application. The key areas today are materials, pharmaceuticals, electronics and chemicals. But emerging areas, such as medicine, energy conversion and environmental implications, also demand dollars. Roco said there is not enough money to fund all sectors simultaneously.

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“This will be a very difficult task. However, this is a good situation to be in — to have many good projects,” he said. “It’s a good situation to be recognized as a top priority.”

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