U.S. envoy for nano at home, abroad


Clayton Teague
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Last fall, Clayton Teague sat under fire as members of Congress peppered him with questions about nanotechnology’s potential for a big oops: nano-based materials or products that could harm people or the environment. As director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, Teague works with more than 20 agencies that participate in the National Nanotechnology Initiative to ensure communication and collaboration among them.

He’s also the face of nano in Washington, D.C., and abroad. When concerns arise about the adequacy of funding for research on nano’s adverse effects, lawmakers turn to him for answers. When international committees want a representative for global cooperation on nano, they tap his shoulder. Teague is in demand - a lot, as he demonstrates in this exchange with Small Times’ Candace Stuart.

Q: What are the most pressing issues facing the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office in 2006?

One is our expectation of the delivery of the assessment report (on how we can improve the National Nanotechnology Initiative) from the National Academies. That’s supposed to be coming up sometime in the spring. What the report says and how we’ll respond will be at the forefront of what we do.

Q: Is this a follow-up to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report that came out last May?

The law requires both an assessment by PCAST and an assessment by the National Academies. There were a number of specific requests in the law that the academies were to address (such as) how we’re doing internationally, how we’re doing in technology transfer.

Q: What are you working on now?

We are working very closely with all the agencies to prepare the next supplement to the president’s 2007 budget, which will lay out the plan that the NNI and participating agencies have for the year 2007.

We laid out a strategic plan about a year ago (including) a very important vision statement with four goals, one of which is the responsible development of nanotechnology. The next step in further refining the strategic plan is to lay out research targets.

Over the next six to eight months that’s going to be a major effort. We hope to identify some very specific targets. Just to give you some examples, one that the NIH (National Institutes of Health) has identified is the $100 genome. The intent is to have all the instrumentation, validation and everything in place so that a person could walk into a clinic with a sample of blood or other sources of DNA, and for $100 walk out with a complete layout of their DNA.

Q: That’s using nanotechnology to accelerate this analysis?

Yes, to use nanoscale sensors, nanotechnology-based instrumentation, to provide this kind of service. Another potential example is to have nanotechnology-based solar cells or photovoltaic cells that are some number of times more efficient than current solar cells and a fraction of the cost.

I give those two examples to indicate the kind of specificity we’re talking about. None of those has been totally agreed upon by the agencies at this point.

We’re pushing very hard (on) the drafting of a document for environmental and health safety R&D. We hope it will be in the final review process in the next month or so. Finally, we will be planning for and conducting a number of public participation activities.

Q: At the House Science Committee hearing in November, witnesses and members of Congress indicated that we needed to put more resources into research on environmental and health effects. But it was unclear where that money should come from.

Almost from the inception of the NNI we placed a very high priority on what we call responsible development of nanotechnology. We meant that you achieve an appropriate balance between investing in R&D to advance the technology and commercialization with research to understand any potential adverse effects or impacts the technology may have for human health, the environment or society.

We really want to expand the knowledge of how we control matter at the nanoscale with the usual goals of strengthening the U.S. economy, supporting national and homeland security, and enhancing the quality of life for all citizens - as well as making our national contribution to improving the health and environment for the world.

Q: But the sense I got from the hearing was that some participants felt there aren’t sufficient allocations right now.

I think that is true, and what I was trying to say when Congressman Bart Gordon kept cutting me off (laughs) is that we identified for ’06 $38.5 million specifically for R&D on environmental health and safety implications for nanotechnology. But that identification was based on a very narrow and strict selection criteria.

We developed a definition that we sent to the agencies and said, “What R&D do you have that meets the criteria.” (The definition: R&D whose primary purpose is to understand and address potential risks to the health and the environment posed by these technologies.)

That’s fairly restrictive. We had earlier tried to make an estimate with a request to the agencies that said, “Tell us what you are doing with nanotechnology implications, applications or fundamental research related to environmental health and safety.” We got back a number that was something like $100 million. We were roundly criticized by some of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations). By including basic research and applications, (they said) that we had appeared to inflate the number.

This time we decided to narrow the definition. By doing so we got back a fairly limited scope of projects. For instance, none of the NIH research on understanding the interactions between nanoscale materials and biosystems is included because its primary purpose is aimed toward improving human health, better diagnostics and better treatment.

Q: Should industry bear some of the financial burden?

I think that is the case. Within the U.S, regulatory system, it is the responsibility of the manufacturers to ensure the safety of their products before they come into the marketplace. The regulatory agencies step in if there is evidence that that has not been the case and the product does prove to be unsafe and have adverse effects on human health or the environment.

Where the money would come from - that is actually a very important policy question. The final funding decisions about what money is going to be allocated where is based largely upon individual agencies. We provide an effective means of communication, collaboration and coordination among the agencies.

If you’re in the tight budget situation that we’re currently in, the most likely way would be for several of the agencies that would be most affected saying, “OK, if we increase funding for the (NIH’s) National Toxicology Program, where would it come from?” No one is probably going to advocate that you draw it from the National Cancer Institute. You have to ask those difficult questions when you think about this.

Q: In its report last May, PCAST encouraged the NNI to facilitate tech transfer from labs into industry. What are you doing on that front?

We organized a second meeting on the regional and state initiatives in nanotechnology. One of the goals is to improve communication to assist in states effectively supporting commercialization at the state and local level.

We keep improving our communications with small and large industries, giving them more effective understanding and knowledge about the research under way at the NNI, and to emphasize the tremendous number of facilities that are being made available for their use.

Q: Many state and local organizations aren’t government funded, so how effective can they be with few resources?

I am not aware of direct federal funding that goes to any of these state initiatives. However, if you look to some of the more successful ones, the state efforts have leveraged (state) investment to get additional support. One example would be Albany in New York.

Q: But not all states have equal resources.

I think that’s true. Certainly it depends on the local economies and their willingness to dedicate significant amounts of their resources toward this.

However, to point out another example where a state took the initiative is Arizona. The citizens decided to increase their sales tax to support educational development, and part of this was the development of facilities to do R&D at universities.

Q: What standards projects are you involved in right now?

I’m primarily involved through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), who are acting as the administrator and secretariat for the technical advisory group (TAG) between the U.S. standards activities and the International Standards Organization (ISO). I’m serving as chair of the TAG. ANSI is the official representative of the United States to the ISO Technical Committee on Nanotechnologies.

We now have about 50 members. I encourage any industry to join in the ANSI technical advisory group. It is very important that the TAG has as thorough and broad representation across industry, academia and government as we can have. When we go to the technical committee meeting (in Japan this summer), we want to have the best and most solid scientific- and technological-based documents as we can possibly produce. That really holds weight at the international level.

The Teague file

Clayton Teague is director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO), which was created to provide technical and administrative support for the Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology subcommittee (NSET). NSET represents the numerous departments and agencies involved in the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Before joining the NNCO, Teague was chief of the manufacturing metrology division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He also has worked on the technical staff at Texas Instruments.