Tag Archives: NSF

A study in contrasts: innovation and education strategies in US and British Columbia (Canada)

It’s always interesting to contrast two approaches to the same issue, in this case, innovation and education strategies designed to improve the economies of the United States and of British Columbia, a province in Canada.

One of the major differences regarding education in the US and in Canada is that the Canadian federal government, unlike the US federal government, has no jurisdiction over the matter. Education is strictly a provincial responsibility.

I recently wrote a commentary (a Jan. 19, 2016 posting) about the BC government’s Jan. 18, 2016 announcement of its innovation strategy in a special emphasis on the education aspect. Premier Christy Clark focused largely on the notion of embedding courses on computer coding in schools from K-12 (kindergarten through grade 12) as Jonathon Narvey noted in his Jan. 19, 2016 event recap for Betakit,

While many in the tech sector will be focused on the short-term benefits of a quick injection of large capital [a $100M BC Tech Fund as part of a new strategy was announced in Dec. 2015 but details about the new #BCTECH Strategy were not shared until Jan. 18, 2016], the long-term benefits for the local tech sector are being seeded in local schools. More than 600,000 BC students will be getting basic skills in the K-12 curriculum, with coding academies, more work experience electives and partnerships between high school and post-secondary institutions.

Here’s what I had to say in my commentary (from the Jan. 19, 2016 posting),

… the government wants to embed  computer coding into the education system for K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12). One determined reporter (Canadian Press if memory serves) attempted to find out how much this would cost. No answer was forthcoming although there were many words expended. Whether this failure was due to ignorance (disturbing!) or a reluctance to share (also disturbing!) was impossible to tell. Another reporter (Georgia Straight) asked about equipment (coding can be taught with pen and paper but hardware is better). … Getting back to the reporter’s question, no answer was forthcoming although the speaker was loquacious.

Another reporter asked if the government had found any jurisdictions doing anything similar regarding computer coding. It seems they did consider other jurisdictions although it was claimed that BC is the first to strike out in this direction. Oddly, no one mentioned Estonia, known in some circles as E-stonia, where the entire school system was online by the late 1990s in an initiative known as the ‘Tiger Leap Foundation’ which also supported computer coding classes in secondary school (there’s more in Tim Mansel’s May 16, 2013 article about Estonia’s then latest initiative to embed computer coding into grade school.) …

Aside from the BC government’s failure to provide details, I am uncomfortable with what I see as an overemphasis on computer coding that suggests a narrow focus on what constitutes a science and technology strategy for education. I find the US approach closer to what I favour although I may be biased since they are building their strategy around nanotechnology education.

The US approach had been announced in dribs and drabs until recently when a Jan. 26, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now indicated a broad-based plan for nanotechnology education (and computer coding),

Over the past 15 years, the Federal Government has invested over $22 billion in R&D under the auspices of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to understand and control matter at the nanoscale and develop applications that benefit society. As these nanotechnology-enabled applications become a part of everyday life, it is important for students to have a basic understanding of material behavior at the nanoscale, and some states have even incorporated nanotechnology concepts into their K-12 science standards. Furthermore, application of the novel properties that exist at the nanoscale, from gecko-inspired climbing gloves and invisibility cloaks, to water-repellent coatings on clothes or cellphones, can spark students’ excitement about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

An earlier Jan. 25, 2016 White House blog posting by Lisa Friedersdorf and Lloyd Whitman introduced the notion that nanotechnology is viewed as foundational and a springboard for encouraging interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while outlining several formal and information education efforts,

The Administration’s updated Strategy for American Innovation, released in October 2015, identifies nanotechnology as one of the emerging “general-purpose technologies”—a technology that, like the steam engine, electricity, and the Internet, will have a pervasive impact on our economy and our society, with the ability to create entirely new industries, create jobs, and increase productivity. To reap these benefits, we must train our Nation’s students for these high-tech jobs of the future. Fortunately, the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology and the unique and fascinating phenomena that occur at the nanoscale mean that nanotechnology is a perfect topic to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Nanotechnology: Super Small Science series [mentioned in my Jan. 21, 2016 posting] is just the latest example of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)’s efforts to educate and inspire our Nation’s students. Other examples include:

The announcement about computer coding and courses being integrated in the US education curricula K-12 was made in US President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech and covered in a Jan. 30, 2016 article by Jessica Hullinger for Fast Company,

In his final State Of The Union address earlier this month, President Obama called for providing hands-on computer science classes for all students to make them “job ready on day one.” Today, he is unveiling how he plans to do that with his upcoming budget.

The President’s Computer Science for All Initiative seeks to provide $4 billion in funding for states and an additional $100 million directly to school districts in a push to provide access to computer science training in K-12 public schools. The money would go toward things like training teachers, providing instructional materials, and getting kids involved in computer science early in elementary and middle school.

There are more details in the Hullinger’s article and in a Jan. 30, 2016 White House blog posting by Megan Smith,

Computer Science for All is the President’s bold new initiative to empower all American students from kindergarten through high school to learn computer science and be equipped with the computational thinking skills they need to be creators in the digital economy, not just consumers, and to be active citizens in our technology-driven world. Our economy is rapidly shifting, and both educators and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that computer science (CS) is a “new basic” skill necessary for economic opportunity and social mobility.

CS for All builds on efforts already being led by parents, teachers, school districts, states, and private sector leaders from across the country.

Nothing says one approach has to be better than the other as there’s usually more than one way to accomplish a set of goals. As well, it’s unfair to expect a provincial government to emulate the federal government of a larger country with more money to spend. I just wish the BC government (a) had shared details such as the budget allotment for their initiative and (b) would hint at a more imaginative, long range view of STEM education.

Going back to Estonia one last time, in addition to the country’s recent introduction of computer coding classes in grade school, it has also embarked on a nanotechnology/nanoscience educational and entrepreneurial programme as noted in my Sept. 30, 2014 posting,

The University of Tartu (Estonia) announced in a Sept. 29, 2014 press release an educational and entrepreneurial programme about nanotechnology/nanoscience for teachers and students,

To bring nanoscience closer to pupils, educational researchers of the University of Tartu decided to implement the European Union LLP Comenius project “Quantum Spin-Off – connecting schools with high-tech research and entrepreneurship”. The objective of the project is to build a kind of a bridge: at one end, pupils can familiarise themselves with modern science, and at the other, experience its application opportunities at high-tech enterprises. “We also wish to inspire these young people to choose a specialisation related to science and technology in the future,” added Lukk [Maarika Lukk, Coordinator of the project].

The pupils can choose between seven topics of nanotechnology: the creation of artificial muscles, microbiological fuel elements, manipulation of nanoparticles, nanoparticles and ionic liquids as oil additives, materials used in regenerative medicine, deposition and 3D-characterisation of atomically designed structures and a topic covered in English, “Artificial robotic fish with EAP elements”.

Learning is based on study modules in the field of nanotechnology. In addition, each team of pupils will read a scientific publication, selected for them by an expert of that particular field. In that way, pupils will develop an understanding of the field and of scientific texts. On the basis of the scientific publication, the pupils prepare their own research project and a business plan suitable for applying the results of the project.

In each field, experts of the University of Tartu will help to understand the topics. Participants will visit a nanotechnology research laboratory and enterprises using nanotechnologies.

The project lasts for two years and it is also implemented in Belgium, Switzerland and Greece.

As they say, time will tell.

NISE Net, the acronym remains the same but the name changes

NISE Net, the US Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network is winding down the nano and refocussing on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In short, NISE Net will now stand for National Informal STEM Education Network. Here’s more from the Jan. 7, 2016 NISE Net announcement in the January 2016 issue of the Nano Bite,

COMMUNITY NEWS

NISE Network is Transitioning to the National Informal STEM Education Network

Thank you for all the great work you have done over the past decade. It has opened up totally new possibilities for the decade ahead.

We are excited to let you know that with the completion of NSF funding for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, and the soon-to-be-announced NASA [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration]-funded Space and Earth Informal STEM Education project, the NISE Network is transitioning to a new, ongoing identity as the National Informal STEM Education Network! While we’ll still be known as the NISE Net, network partners will now engage audiences across the United States in a range of STEM topics. Several new projects are already underway and others are in discussion for the future.

Current NISE Net projects include:

  • The original Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net), focusing on nanoscale science, engineering, and technology (funded by NSF and led by the Museum of Science, Boston)
  • Building with Biology, focusing on synthetic biology (funded by NSF and led by the Museum of Science with AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science], BioBuilder, and SynBerc [emphases mine])
  • Sustainability in Science Museums (funded by Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives and led by Arizona State University)
  • Transmedia Museum, focusing on science and society issues raised by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (funded by NSF and led by Arizona State University)
  • Space and Earth Informal STEM Education (funded by NASA and led by the Science Museum of Minnesota)

The “new” NISE Net will be led by the Science Museum of Minnesota in collaboration with the Museum of Science and Arizona State University. Network leadership, infrastructure, and participating organizations will include existing Network partners, and others attracted to the new topics. We will be in touch through the newsletter, blog, and website in the coming months to share more about our plans for the Network and its projects.

In the mean time, work is continuing with partners within the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network throughout 2016, with an award end date of February 28, 2017. Although there will not be a new NanoDays 2016 kit, we encourage our partners to continue to engage audiences in nano by hosting NanoDays events in 2016 (March 26 – April 3) and in the years ahead using their existing kit materials. The Network will continue to host and update nisenet.org and the online catalog that includes 627 products of which 366 are NISE Net products (public and professional), 261 are Linked products, and 55 are Evaluation and Research reports. The Evaluation and Research team is continuing to work on final Network reports, and the Museum and Community Partnerships project has awarded 100 Explore Science physical kits to partners to create new or expanded collaborations with local community organizations to reach new underserved audiences not currently engaged in nano. These collaborative projects are taking place spring-summer 2016.

Thank you again for making this possible through your great work.

Best regards,

Larry Bell, Museum of Science
Paul Martin, Science Museum of Minnesota and
Rae Ostman, Arizona State University

As noted in previous posts, I’m quite interested in the synthetic biology focus the network has established in the last several months starting in late Spring 2015 and the mention of two (new-to-me) organizations, BioBuilder and Synberc piqued my interest.

I found this on the About the foundation page of the BioBuilder website,

What’s the best way to solve today’s health problems? Or hunger challenges? Address climate change concerns? Or keep the environment cleaner? These are big questions. And everyone can be part of the solutions. Everyone. Middle school students, teens, high school teachers.

At BioBuilder, we teach problem solving.
We bring current science to the classroom.
We engage our students to become real scientists — the problem solvers who will change the world.
At BioBuilder, we empower educators to be agents of educational reform by reconnecting teachers all across the country with their love of teaching and their own love of learning.

Synthetic biology programs living cells to tackle today’s challenges. Biofuels, safer foods, anti-malarial drugs, less toxic cancer treatment, biodegradable adhesives — all fuel young students’ imaginations. At BioBuilder, we empower students to tackle these big questions. BioBuilder’s curricula and teacher training capitalize on students’ need to know, to explore and to be part of solving real world problems. Developed by an award winning team out of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], BioBuilder is taught in schools across the country and supported by thought leaders in the STEM community.

BioBuilder proves that learning by doing works. And inspires.

As for Synberc, it is the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center and they has this to say about themselves on their About us page (Note: Links have been removed),

Synberc is a multi-university research center established in 2006 with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help lay the foundation for synthetic biology Our mission is threefold:

develop the foundational understanding and technologies to build biological components and assemble them into integrated systems to accomplish many particular tasks;
train a new cadre of engineers who will specialize in engineering biology; and
engage the public about the opportunities and challenges of engineering biology.

Just as electrical engineers have made it possible for us to assemble computers from standardized parts (hard drives, memory cards, motherboards, and so on), we envision a day when biological engineers will be able to systematically assemble biological components such as sensors, signals, pathways, and logic gates in order to build bio-based systems that solve real-world problems in health, energy, and the environment.

In our work, we apply engineering principles to biology to develop tools that improve how fast — and how well — we can go through the design-test-build cycle. These include smart fermentation organisms that can sense their environment and adjust accordingly, and multiplex automated genome engineering, or MAGE, designed for large-scale programming and evolution of cells. We also pursue the discovery of applications that can lead to significant public benefit, such as synthetic artemisinin [emphasis mine], an anti-malaria drug that costs less and is more effective than the current plant-derived treatment.

The reference to ‘synthetic artemisinin’ caught my eye as I wrote an April 12, 2013 posting featuring this “… anti-malaria drug …” and the claim that the synthetic “… costs less and is more effective than the current plant-derived treatment” wasn’t quite the conclusion journalist, Brendan Borrell arrived at. Perhaps there’s been new research? If so, please let me know.

Canada has a nanotechnology industry? and an overview of the US situation

It’s always interesting to get some insight into how someone else sees the nanotechnology effort in Canada.

First, there have been two basic approaches internationally. Some countries have chosen to fund nanotechnology/nanoscience research through a national initiative/project/council/etc. Notably the US, the UK, China, and Russia, amongst others, have followed this model. For example, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)  (a type of hub for research, communication, and commercialization efforts) has been awarded a portion of the US budget every year since 2000. The money is then disbursed through the National Science Foundation.

Canada and its nanotechnology industry efforts

By contrast, Canada has no such line item in its national budget. There is a National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) but it is one of many institutes that help make up Canada’s National Research Council. I’m not sure if this is still true but when it was first founded, NINT was funded in part by the federal government and in part by the province of Alberta where it is located (specifically, in Edmonton at the University of Alberta). They claim the organization has grown since its early days although it looks like it’s been shrinking. Perhaps some organizational shuffles? In any event, support for the Canadian nanotechnology efforts are more provincial than federal. Alberta (NINT and other agencies) and Québec (NanoQuébec, a provincially funded nano effort) are the standouts, with Ontario (nano Ontario, a self-organized not-for-profit group) following closely. The scene in Canada has always seemed fragmented in comparison to the countries that have nanotechnology ‘hubs’.

Patrick Johnson in a Dec. 22, 2015 article for Geopolitical Monitor offers a view which provides an overview of nanotechnology in the US and Canada,  adds to the perspective offered here, and, at times, challenges it (Note: A link has been added),

The term ‘nanotechnology’ entered into the public vernacular quite suddenly around the turn of the century, right around the same time that, when announcing the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2001 [2000; see the American Association for the Advancement of Science webpage on Historical Trends in Federal R&D, scroll down to the National Nanotechnology Initiative and click on the Jpg or Excel links], President Bill Clinton declared that it would one day build materials stronger than steel, detect cancer at its inception, and store the vast records of the Library of Congress in a device the size of a sugar cube. The world of science fiction took matters even further. In his 2002 book Prey, Michael Creighton [Michael Crichton; see Wikipedia entry] wrote of a cloud of self-replicating nanorobots [also known as, nanobots or self-assemblers] that terrorize the good people of Nevada when a science experiment goes terribly wrong.

Back then the hype was palpable. Federal money was funneled to promising nanotech projects as not to fall behind in the race to master this new frontier of science. And industry analysts began to shoot for the moon in their projections. The National Science Foundation famously predicted that the nanotechnology industry would be worth $1 trillion by the year 2015.

Well here we are in 2015 and the nanotechnology market was worth around $26 billion in [sic] last year, and there hasn’t even been one case of a murderous swarm of nanomachines terrorizing the American heartland. [emphasis mine]

Is this a failure of vision? No. If anything it’s only a failure of timing.

The nanotechnology industry is still well on its way to accomplishing the goals set out at the founding of the NNI, goals which at the time sounded utterly quixotic, and this fact is increasingly being reflected in year-on-year growth numbers. In other words, nanotechnology is still a game-changer in global innovation, it’s just taking a little longer than first expected.

The Canadian Connection

Although the Canadian government is not among the world’s top spenders on nanotechnology research, the industry still represents a bright spot in the future of the Canadian economy. The public-private engine [emphasis mine] at the center of Canada’s nanotech industry, the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), was founded in 2001 with the stated goal of “increasing the competitiveness of Canadian companies; creating technology solutions to meet the needs of society; expanding training programs for researchers and entrepreneurs; and enhancing Canada’s stature in the world of nanotechnology.” This ambitious mandate that NINT set out for itself was to be accomplished over the course of two broad stages: first a ‘seeding’ phase of attracting promising personnel and coordinating basic research, and the then a ‘harvesting’ phase of putting the resulting nanotechnologies to the service of Canadian industry.

Recent developments in Canadian nanotechnology [emphasis mine] show that we have already entered that second stage where the concept of nanotechnology transitions from hopeful hypothetical to real-world economic driver

I’d dearly like to know which recent developments indicate Canada’s industry has entered a serious commercialization phase. (It’s one of the shortcomings of our effort that communication is not well supported.) As well, I’d like to know more about the  “… public-private engine at the center of Canada’s nanotech industry …” as Johnson seems to be referring to the NINT, which is jointly funded (I believe) by the federal government and the province of Alberta. There is no mention of private funding on their National Research Council webpage but it does include the University of Alberta as a major supporter.

I am intrigued and I hope there is more information to come.

US and its nanotechnology industry efforts

Dr. Ambika Bumb has written a Dec. 23, 2015 article for Tech Crunch which reflects on her experience as a researcher and entrepreneur in the context of the US NNI effort and includes a plea for future NNI funding [Note: One link added and one link removed],

Indeed, I am fortunate to be the CEO of a nanomedicine technology developer that extends the hands of doctors and scientists to the cellular and molecular level.

The first seeds of interest in bringing effective nano-tools into the hands of doctors and patients were planted in my mind when I did undergrad research at Georgia Tech.  That initial interest led to me pursuing a PhD at Oxford University to develop a tri-modal nanoparticle for imaging a variety of diseases ranging from cancers to autoimmune disorders.

My graduate research only served to increase my curiosity so I then did a pair of post-doctoral fellowships at the National Cancer Institute and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.  When it seemed that I was a shoe-in for a life-long academic career, our technology garnered much attention and I found myself in the Bay Area founding the now award-winning Bikanta [bikanta.com].

Through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003, our federal government has invested $20 billion in nanoresearch in the past 13 years.  The return on that investment has resulted in 628 agency‐to‐agency collaborations, hundreds of thousands of publications, and more than $1 trillion in revenue generated from nano‐enabled products. [emphasis mine]

Given that medical innovations take a minimum of 10 years before they translate into a clinical product, already realizing a 50X return is an astounding achievement.  Slowing down would be counter-intuitive from an academic and business perspective.

Yet, that is what is happening.  Federal funding peaked half a decade ago in 2010.  [emphasis mine] NNI investments went from $1.58B in 2010 to $1.170B in 2015 (in constant dollars), a 26% drop.  The number of nano-related papers published in the US were roughly 25 thousand in 2013, while the EU and China produced 33 and 35 thousand, respectively.

History has shown repeatedly how the United States has lost an early competitive advantage in developing high‐value technologies to international competition when commercialization infrastructure was not adequately supported.

Examples include semiconductors, advanced batteries for vehicles, and cement‐based construction materials, all of which were originally developed in the United States, but are now manufactured elsewhere.

It is now time for a second era – NNI 2.0.  A return to higher and sustained investment, the purpose of NNI 2.0 should be not just foundational research but also necessary support for rapid commercialization of nanotechnology. The translation of bench science into commercial reality requires the partnership of academic, industrial, federal, and philanthropic players.

I’m not sure why there’s a difference between Johnson’s ” … worth around $26 billion in [sic] last year …] and Bumb’s “… return on that investment has resulted … more than $1 trillion in revenue generated from nano‐enabled products.” I do know there is some controversy as to what should or should not be included when estimating the value of the ‘nanotechnology enterprise’, for example, products that are only possible due to nanotechnology as opposed to products that already existed, such as golf clubs, but are enhanced by nanotechnology.

Bumb goes on to provide a specific example from her own experience to support the plea,

When I moved from the renowned NIH [US National Institutes of Health] on the east coast to the west coast to start Bikanta, one of the highest priority concerns was how we were going to develop nanodiamond technology without access to high-end characterization instrumentation to analyze the quality of our material.  Purchasing all that equipment was not financially viable or even wise for a startup.

We were extremely lucky because our proposal was accepted by the Molecular Foundry, one of five DOE [US Department of Energy]-funded nanoscience user facilities.  While the Foundry primarily facilitates basic nanoscience projects from academic and national laboratory users, Fortune 500 companies and startups like ours also take advantage of its capabilities to answer fundamental questions and conduct proof of concept studies (~10%).

Disregarding the dynamic intellectual community for a minute, there is probably more than $150M worth of instrumentation at the Foundry.  An early startup would never be able to dream of raising a first round that large.

One of the factors of Bikanta’s success is that the Molecular Foundry enabled us to make tremendous strides in R&D in just months instead of years.  More user facilities, incubator centers, and funding for commercializing nanotech are greatly needed.

Final comments

I have to thank Dr. Bumb for pointing out that 2010 was the peak for NNI funding (see the American Association for the Advancement of Science webpage on Historical Trends in Federal R&D, scroll down to the National Nanotechnology Initiative and click on the Jpg or Excel links). I erroneously believed (although I don’t appear to have written up my belief; if you find any such statement, please let me know so I can correct it) that the 2015 US budget was the first time the NNI experienced a drop in funding.

While I found Johnson’s article interesting I wasn’t able to determine the source for his numbers and some of his material had errors that can be identified immediately, e.g., Michael Creighton instead of Michael Crichton.

A view to controversies about nanoparticle drug delivery, sticky-flares, and a PNAS surprise

Despite all the excitement and claims for nanoparticles as vehicles for drug delivery to ‘sick’ cells there is at least one substantive problem, the drug-laden nanoparticles don’t actually enter the interior of the cell. They are held in a kind of cellular ‘waiting room’.

Leonid Schneider in a Nov. 20, 2015 posting on his For Better Science blog describes the process in more detail,

A large body of scientific nanotechnology literature is dedicated to the biomedical aspect of nanoparticle delivery into cells and tissues. The functionalization of the nanoparticle surface is designed to insure their specificity at targeting only a certain type of cells, such as cancers cells. Other technological approaches aim at the cargo design, in order to ensure the targeted release of various biologically active agents: small pharmacological substances, peptides or entire enzymes, or nucleotides such as regulatory small RNAs or even genes. There is however a main limitation to this approach: though cells do readily take up nanoparticles through specific membrane-bound receptor interaction (endocytosis) or randomly (pinocytosis), these nanoparticles hardly ever truly reach the inside of the cell, namely its nucleocytoplasmic space. Solid nanoparticles are namely continuously surrounded by the very same membrane barrier they first interacted with when entering the cell. These outer-cell membrane compartments mature into endosomal and then lysosomal vesicles, where their cargo is subjected to low pH and enzymatic digestion. The nanoparticles, though seemingly inside the cell, remain actually outside. …

What follows is a stellar piece featuring counterclaims about and including Schneider’s own journalistic research into scientific claims that the problem of gaining entry to a cell’s true interior has been addressed by technologies developed in two different labs.

Having featured one of the technologies here in a July 24, 2015 posting titled: Sticky-flares nanotechnology to track and observe RNA (ribonucleic acid) regulation and having been contacted a couple of times by one of the scientists, Raphaël Lévy from the University of Liverpool (UK), challenging the claims made (Lévy’s responses can be found in the comments section of the July 2015 posting), I thought a followup of sorts was in order.

Scientific debates (then and now)

Scientific debates and controversies are part and parcel of the scientific process and what most outsiders, such as myself, don’t realize is how fraught it is. For a good example from the past, there’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (from its Wikipedia entry), Note: Links have been removed),

Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (published 1985) is a book by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. It examines the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over Boyle’s air-pump experiments in the 1660s.

The style seems more genteel than what a contemporary Canadian or US audience is accustomed to but Hobbes and Boyle (and proponents of both sides) engaged in bruising communication.

There was a lot at stake then and now. It’s not just the power, prestige, and money, as powerfully motivating as they are, it’s the research itself. Scientists work for years to achieve breakthroughs or to add more to our common store of knowledge. It’s painstaking and if you work at something for a long time, you tend to be invested in it. Saying you’ve wasted ten years of your life looking at the problem the wrong way or have misunderstood your data is not easy.

As for the current debate, Schneider’s description gives no indication that there is rancour between any of the parties but it does provide a fascinating view of two scientists challenging one of the US’s nanomedicine rockstars, Chad Mirkin. The following excerpt follows the latest technical breakthroughs to the interior portion of the cell through three phases of the naming conventions (Nano-Flares, also known by its trade name, SmartFlares, which is a precursor technology to Sticky-Flares), Note: Links have been removed,

The next family of allegedly nucleocytoplasmic nanoparticles which Lévy turned his attention to, was that of the so called “spherical nucleic acids”, developed in the lab of Chad Mirkin, multiple professor and director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at the Northwestern University, USA. These so called “Nano-Flares” are gold nanoparticles, functionalized with fluorophore-coupled oligonucleotides matching the messenger RNA (mRNA) of interest (Prigodich et al., ACS Nano 3:2147-2152, 2009; Seferos et al., J Am. Chem.Soc. 129:15477-15479, 2007). The mRNA detection method is such that the fluorescence is initially quenched by the gold nanoparticle proximity. Yet when the oligonucleotide is displaced by the specific binding of the mRNA molecules present inside the cell, the fluorescence becomes detectable and serves thus as quantitative read-out for the intracellular mRNA abundance. Exactly this is where concerns arise. To find and bind mRNA, spherical nucleic acids must leave the endosomal compartments. Is there any evidence that Nano-Flares ever achieve this and reach intact the nucleocytoplasmatic space, where their target mRNA is?

Lévy’s lab has focused its research on the commercially available analogue of the Nano-Flares, based on the patent to Mirkin and Northwestern University and sold by Merck Millipore under the trade name of SmartFlares. These were described by Mirkin as “a powerful and prolific tool in biology and medical diagnostics, with ∼ 1,600 unique forms commercially available today”. The work, led by Lévy’s postdoctoral scientist David Mason, now available in post-publication process at ScienceOpen and on Figshare, found no experimental evidence for SmartFlares to be ever found outside the endosomal membrane vesicles. On the contrary, the analysis by several complementary approaches, i.e., electron, fluorescence and photothermal microscopy, revealed that the probes are retained exclusively within the endosomal compartments.

In fact, even Merck Millipore was apparently well aware of this problem when the product was developed for the market. As I learned, Merck performed a number of assays to address the specificity issue. Multiple hundred-fold induction of mRNA by biological cell stimulation (confirmed by quantitative RT-PCR) led to no significant changes in the corresponding SmartFlare signal. Similarly, biological gene downregulation or experimental siRNA knock-down had no effect on the corresponding SmartFlare fluorescence. Cell lines confirmed as negative for a certain biomarker proved highly positive in a SmartFlare assay.  Live cell imaging showed the SmartFlare signal to be almost entirely mitochondrial, inconsistent with reported patterns of the respective mRNA distributions.  Elsewhere however, cyanine dye-labelled oligonucleotides were found to unspecifically localise to mitochondria   (Orio et al., J. RNAi Gene Silencing 9:479-485, 2013), which might account to the often observed punctate Smart Flare signal.

More recently, Mirkin lab has developed a novel version of spherical nucleic acids, named Sticky-Flares (Briley et al., PNAS 112:9591-9595, 2015), which has also been patented for commercial use. The claim is that “the Sticky-flare is capable of entering live cells without the need for transfection agents and recognizing target RNA transcripts in a sequence-specific manner”. To confirm this, Lévy used the same approach as for the striped nanoparticles [not excerpted here]: he approached Mirkin by email and in person, requesting the original microscopy data from this publication. As Mirkin appeared reluctant, Lévy invoked the rules for data sharing by the journal PNAS, the funder NSF as well as the Northwestern University. After finally receiving Mirkin’s thin-optical microscopy data by air mail, Lévy and Mason re-analyzed it and determined the absence of any evidence for endosomal escape, while all Sticky-Flare particles appeared to be localized exclusively inside vesicular membrane compartments, i.e., endosomes (Mason & Levy, bioRxiv 2015).

I encourage you to read Schneider’s Nov. 20, 2015 posting in its entirety as these excerpts can’t do justice to it.

The PNAS surprise

PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) published one of Mirkin’s papers on ‘Sticky-flares’ and is where scientists, Raphaël Lévy and David Mason, submitted a letter outlining their concerns with the ‘Sticky-flares’ research. Here’s the response as reproduced in Lévy’s Nov. 16, 2015 posting on his Rapha-Z-Lab blog

Dear Dr. Levy,

I regret to inform you that the PNAS Editorial Board has declined to publish your Letter to the Editor. After careful consideration, the Board has decided that your letter does not contribute significantly to the discussion of this paper.

Thank you for submitting your comments to PNAS.

Sincerely yours,
Inder Verma
Editor-in-Chief

Judge for yourself, Lévy’s and Mason’s letter can be found here (pdf) and here.

Conclusions

My primary interest in this story is in the view it provides of the scientific process and the importance of and difficulty associated with the debates.

I can’t venture an opinion about the research or the counterarguments other than to say that Lévy’s and Mason’s thoughtful challenge bears more examination than PNAS is inclined to accord. If their conclusions or Chad Mirkin’s are wrong, let that be determined in an open process.

I’ll leave the very last comment to Schneider who is both writer and cartoonist, from his Nov. 20, 2015 posting,

LeonidSchneiderImagination

(US) Contest: Design a nanotechnology-themed superhero

This contest is open to students enrolled in US high schools or home-schooled and the deadline is Feb. 2, 2016.

High school students can lend their creativity to engineering, science and nanotechnology. Credit: NSF

High school students can lend their creativity to engineering, science and nanotechnology. Credit: NSF

Here are more details from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) Nov. 19, 2015 news release,

A brand-new competition, awarding finalists the opportunity to present their entries at the 2016 USA Science & Engineering Festival [held April 16 & 17, 2016] and compete for cash prizes, opens today for high school students interested in science, engineering and superpowers.

Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The competition invites individual students enrolled in U.S. high schools, or who are home-schooled, to submit an original idea for a superhero who uses unique nanotechnology-inspired “gear,” such as a vehicle, costume or tool.

Generation Nano encourages students to think big–which, in this case, means super small–when pondering their hero’s gear: shoelaces that decode secret radio waves, nanotechnology-infused blood cells that supercharge adrenaline or clothing that can change color to camouflage its wearer.

“The wonders of nanotechnology are inspiring an increasing number of young students to pursue science and engineering,” said NSF Senior Advisor for Science and Engineering Mihail C. Roco. “The Generation Nano competition recognizes and channels that interest, while giving students the chance to showcase their creativity at a national level.”

“I’m just thrilled about Generation Nano,” said Lisa Friedersdorf, deputy director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. “This competition has the potential to excite students about science and introduce them to the novel world of nanotechnology. I can’t wait to see the submissions.”

Competition details:

  • Students must submit a written entry explaining their superhero and nanotechnology-driven gear, along with a one-page comic or 90-second video.
  • Cash prizes are $1,500 for first place, $1,000 for second place and $500 for third place.
  • Finalists will showcase their comic or video at the 2016 USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. Final-round judging will take place at the festival.
  • Submissions are due by midnight on Feb. 2, 2016.

Through nanotechnology applications like targeted drugs, self-assembled nanodevices, molecular motors and other innovations, students never have to endure a radioactive spider bite to realize their full potential.

Visit the Generation Nano competition website for full eligibility criteria, entry guidelines, timeline and prize information.

The Generation Nano website offers resources for generating comics, accessing images and audio on this page.

For inspiration, you can take a look at my May 11, 2012 posting which features a description of the nanotechnology-enabled Extremis storyline in the Iron Man comic book series in the context of plans for the Iron Man 3 movie.

For more inspiration from 2012, there was a special exhibit at the Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland featuring six superheroes created for the exhibit (my Sept. 14, 2012 posting; scroll down about 25% of the way to where I discuss the Magical Materials; Unleash Your Superpowers exhibit).

Good luck!

Reactions to Canada’s 2015 election Liberal majority and speculations about science and the new cabinet

The euphoria is dying down and, on balance, there was surprisingly little, the tone being more one of optimism laced with caution on the occasion of the Conservative’s defeat at the hands of the Liberal party in the Oct. 19, 2015 Canadian federal election.

Of course the big question for me and other Canadian science bloggers is:

What about science in the wake of the 2015 Liberal majority government in Canada?

I’ve gathered bits and pieces from various published opinions on the topic. First, there’s Brian Owen, a freelance writer in St. Stephen, New Brunswick (there’s more about him in my Aug. 18, 2015 posting about the upcoming Canadian Science Policy Conference to be held Nov. 25 -27, 2015 in Ottawa [Canada’s capital]) in an Oct. 20, 2015 opinion piece for ScienceInsider,

Many Canadian scientists are celebrating the result of yesterday’s federal election, which saw Stephen Harper’s Conservative government defeated after nearly 10 years in power.

The center-left Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau won an unexpected majority government, taking 184 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives will form the opposition with 99 seats, while the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) fell to third place with just 44 seats.

“Many scientists will be pleased with the outcome,” says Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. “The Liberal party has a strong record in supporting science.” [emphasis mine]

I don’t think the Liberal record is that great. If I understand it rightly, the first muzzle placed on government scientists was applied by a then Liberal government to Health Canada. That’s right the Conservatives got the idea from the Liberals and it’s not the only one they got from that source. Omnibus bills were also pioneered by the Liberal government.

However, hope still springs in mine and others’ bosoms as can be seen in an Oct. 21, 2015 essay in the Guardian (UK newspaper) by Michael Halpern of the Center for Science and Democracy at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists  (Note: Links have been removed),

There was a palpable outpouring of relief from Canadian scientists as the Liberal Party won a majority on Monday night [Oct. 19, 2015], bringing to an end nine years of escalating hostility by the Harper government towards its own research base. Drastic cuts to funding and constraints on scientific freedom have significantly damaged Canadian research and its capacity to develop science-based public health and environmental policies.

Eight hundred scientists from thirty-two countries wrote an open letter urging the prime minster to ease restrictions on scientists and data. In October 2014, a Ryerson University professor wrote in Science magazine that the election presented an “opportunity to reboot the federal government’s controversial approach to science policy and research.”

All of this advocacy worked. Science became a major campaign issue during the election. There were all-party debates on science policy and extensive media coverage. The Green, Liberal and NDP platforms included significant commitments to restore science to its rightful place in society and public policy.

“We’ll reverse the $40 million cut that Harper made to our federal ocean science and monitoring programs,” said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau at a September campaign stop. “The war on science ends with the liberal government.” In tweet after tweet after tweet, opposition candidates argued that they were best positioned to defend scientific integrity.

Now that it’s been elected with a healthy majority, the Liberal Party says it will make data openly available, unmuzzle scientists, bring back the long form census, appoint a chief science officer, and make the agency Statistics Canada fully independent.

In the United States, many celebrated the end of the Bush administration in 2008, thinking that its restrictions on science would evaporate the moment that the Obama administration took office. It wasn’t true. There has been significant progress in protecting scientists from political influence. But the public has still lacked access to scientific information on multiple environmental and public health issues.

So who will keep watch over the new government, as it’s forced to choose among its many priorities? Canadian unions, scientists, policy experts and activists need to continue to push for real change. It’s up to those who care most about science and democracy to keep Trudeau on his toes.

Returning to Owen’s article, there are more pledges from the new Liberal government,

… Trudeau has also said his party will embrace “evidence based policy” and “data-driven decision-making,”  do more to address climate change, protect endangered species, and review the environmental impact of major energy and development projects.

Woodgett welcomes those pledges, but warns that they would not address the larger issue of what he sees as the government’s neglect of basic research funding. “I hope we will see less short-term thinking and much greater support for discovery research going forward,” he says. “We are at serious risk of a lost generation of scientists and it’s critical that younger researchers are given a clear indication that Canada is open to their ideas and needs.”

Science advocates plan to watch the new government closely to ensure it lives up to its promises. “Great to see Harper gone, but another majority is an awfully big blank cheque,” wrote Michael Rennie, a freshwater ecologist at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, on Twitter.

David Bruggeman in a cautionary Oct. 22, 2015 posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) sums things up in this title: Will New Canadian Government Be The Change Its Scientists Can Believe In? (Note: Links have been removed),

… Only one of the four party representatives at the recent science and technology debate managed to win a seat in the upcoming Parliament.  MP Marc Garneau will remain in Parliament, and his experience in the Canadian Space Agency means he may be able to better manage the changes sought in official government (as opposed to Parliamentary) policy.

The Conservatives will now shift to being the Official Opposition (the largest party not in power).  However, the current cabinet minister responsible for science and technology, and at least two of his predecessors, lost their seats.  The party that was the Official Opposition, the New Democratic Party (NDP), lost several seats, returning to the third largest party in Parliament.  (However, they appear to be a more natural ally for the Liberals than the Conservatives) MP Kennedy Stewart, who has championed the establishment of a Parliamentary Science Officer, barely retained his seat.  He will likely remain as the NDP science critic.

… While the policies on media access to government scientists are part of this trend, they may not be the first priority for Trudeau and his cabinet.  It may turn out to be something similar to the transition from the Bush to the Obama Administrations.  Changes to policies concerning so-called political interference with science were promised, but have not gotten the thorough commitment from the Obama Administration that some would have liked and/or expected.

As David notes. we lost significant critical voices when those Conservative MPs failed to get re-elected.

In a post-election Oct. 24, 2015 posting, Sarah Boon offers a call to action on her Watershed Moments blog (Note: Links have been removed),

I think it’s important to realize, however, that the work doesn’t end here.

Canadian scientists found their voice in the run up to the election, but they’d better not lose it now.

In a pre-election editorial on the Science Borealis Blog, Pascal Lapointe suggested that – after the election – the organizations that worked so hard to make science an election issue should join forces and keep pushing the government to keep science as a top priority. These groups include Evidence for Democracy, the Science Integrity Project, Get Science Right, Our Right to Know, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and more.

Finally, there’s an Oct. 20, 2015 posting by Canadians Julia Whidden and Rachel Skubel on the Southern Fried Science blog explaining the Canadian election to American colleagues in what begins in a facey style which, thankfully and quickly, switches to informative and opinionated (Note: They have nothing good to say about the Conservatives and science),

Up until this past year, the thought of Canadian politics had probably never crossed your mind. For some of you, your introduction to the topic may have been via the astute criticisms of John Oliver published this past weekend. His YouTube video currently skyrocketing at just under 3 million views in less than 48 hours, may have even been the introduction to Canadian politics for some Canadians. Let’s face it: in comparison to the flashy and sometimes trashy race of our neighbors to the south (ahem, you Americans), Canadian politics are usually tame, boring, and dry. …

We present a few major issues related to marine science and conservation that Harper either dragged down or destroyed, and the complementary response by our new PM Trudeau from his platform. …

Based on the Liberals party’s platform, and their statements throughout the last year, here’s a taste of the contrasts between old and new:

Harper/Conservatives Trudeau/Liberals
Marine Protected AreasCommitted in 2011 to protect 10% of Canada’s coastal marine and coastal areas by 2020 under the International Convention on Biodiversity, but is lagging at a meager 1.3% – and only 0.11% is fully closed to “extractive activities.” 

 

MPApercent

 

Proposed MPAs have been stalled by inaction, failure to cooperate by the federal government or stakeholders, and overall a system which needs an infusion of resources – not cuts – to meet ambitious goals.

“We will increase the amount of Canada’s marine and coastal areas that are protected from 1.3 percent to 5 percent by 2017, and 10 percent by 2020.” Liberal Party’s Protecting our Oceans mandate

There is a bit of misinformation in the Southern Fried Science posting,

The National Research Council (NRC) is Canada’s equivalent of America’s National Science Foundation (NSF).

The closest analogue to the US National Science Foundation is Canada’s Tri-Council Agencies comprised of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Next step: appointing a cabinet

Oddly, I haven’t found anyone speculating as to what will happen to science when Justin Trudeau announces his cabinet. He has already stated that his cabinet will be significantly smaller than Stephen Harper’s cabinet of 39 ministers. Numbers for the new cabinet range from 25 to 28 to 30. The largest proposed Trudeau cabinet (30) is almost 25% less than the previous one. Clearly, some ministries will have to go or be combined with other ones.

I’m guessing that Science, which is considered a junior ministry, will be rolled into another ministry, possibly Industry, to be renamed, Industry and Science. Or, by appointing a Chief Science Advisor, Trudeau trumpets the new importance of science with this special status and disburses the Science Ministry responsibilities amongst a variety of ministries.

In any event, I look forward to finding out later this week (Nov. 2 – 6, 2015) whether either or neither of my predictions comes true.

*Canadian cabinet update: To see how I got it both wrong and right see my Nov.4, 2015 posting.

ETA Nov. 5, 2015: I found one more piece for this roundup, an Oct. 22, 2015 article by Helen Carmichael for Chemistry World published by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry (Note: Links have been removed),

There will likely be a shift in the Canadian government’s target research areas towards areas such as green energy and away from fossil fuels, observers say. In addition, they expect that the Trudeau government will be more hands off when it comes to the science that it funds – giving money to the granting councils and trusting them to disburse those funds via peer review. …

The way that science is funded – the politicisation of science – will be less of an issue for the next while,’ says John Brennan, a chemistry and chemical biology professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who directs the school’s Biointerfaces Institute.

Trudeau and his Liberal party have promised to appoint a chief science officer similar to the national science adviser position that the Harper government eliminated in 2008. Canada’s new chief science officer would report to the prime minister and ensure that government science is available to the public, that all the country’s scientists are able to speak freely about their work and that scientific analyses are considered when the Canadian government develops policy. The Trudeau government has also said that it will create a central online portal for government-funded scientific research to enable greater public access.

The Liberals offer quite a different vision for the Canadian economy than the Conservatives, planning to run short-term budget deficits to increase government spending on public infrastructure, and to return the country to a balanced budget in 2019–20. The party has committed to C$25 million (£12 million) in funding for National Parks and reversing budget cuts to government ocean science and monitoring programmes.

In addition to proposing initiatives to increase business investment in research and development, the Liberals want a tax credit, and will invest C$200 million annually to support innovation in the forestry, fisheries, mining, energy and agriculture sectors. Public science is particularly important in Canada, where the private sector funds a much lower proportion of research than most industrialised nations.

Provincial governments own Canada’s natural resources, with fossil fuel production largely in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Energy production is a major part of the Canadian economy. Trudeau has committed to set up a C$2 billion fund to help the country transition to a low carbon economy, but meanwhile he is not expected to withdraw support for the proposed Alberta to Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Incoming president and chief executive of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC), Bob Masterson, recently told Chemistry World that rapid policy decisions by Canadian governments and retailers, without sufficient consultation with industry, are not advantageous or based on sound science. He described missed opportunities for the Canadian chemical industry to engage with regulators, coupled with a lack of coordination between various tiers of Canada’s national and regional regulations. On key issues, such as Canada’s Chemical Management Plan, global trade and maintaining competitive corporate tax rates, Masterson says the CIAC believes the liberal positions represent continuity rather than change from the previous government.

Carmichael’s offers a good overview and is the only one of *three* (the others* being from David Bruggeman *and Michael Halpern*) analyses  I’ve found, that are being written by people who are not navel gazing.

*’two’ changed to ‘three’, ‘other’ changed to ‘others’, and ‘and Michael Halpern’ added 1250 PST on Nov. 5, 2015.

Funding trends for US synthetic biology efforts

Less than 1% of total US federal funding for synthetic biology is dedicated to risk research according to a Sept. 16, 2015 Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars news release on EurekAlert,

A new analysis by the Synthetic Biology Project at the Wilson Center finds the Defense Department and its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) fund much of the U.S. government’s research in synthetic biology, with less than 1 percent of total federal funding going to risk research.

The report, U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research, finds that between 2008 and 2014, the United States invested approximately $820 million dollars in synthetic biology research. In that time period, the Defense Department became a key funder of synthetic biology research. DARPA’s investments, for example, increased from near zero in 2010 to more than $100 million in 2014 – more than three times the amount spent by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Wilson Center news release can also be found here on the Center’s report publication page where it goes on to provide more detail and where you can download the report,

The report, U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research, finds that between 2008 and 2014, the United States invested approximately $820 million dollars in synthetic biology research. In that time period, the Defense Department became a key funder of synthetic biology research. DARPA’s investments, for example, increased from near zero in 2010 to more than $100 million in 2014 – more than three times the amount spent by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“The increase in DARPA research spending comes as NSF is winding down its initial investment in the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, or SynBERC,” says Dr. Todd Kuiken, senior program associate with the project. “After the SynBERC funding ends next year, it is unclear if there will be a dedicated synthetic biology research program outside of the Pentagon. There is also little investment addressing potential risks and ethical issues, which can affect public acceptance and market growth as the field advances.”

The new study found that less than one percent of the total U.S. funding is focused on synthetic biology risk research and approximately one percent addresses ethical, legal, and social issues.

Internationally, research funding is increasing. Last year, research investments by the European Commission and research agencies in the United Kingdom exceeded non-defense spending in the United States, the report finds.

The research spending comes at a time of growing interest in synthetic biology, particularly surrounding the potential presented by new gene-editing techniques. Recent research by the industry group SynBioBeta indicated that, so far in 2015, synthetic biology companies raised half a billion dollars – more than the total investments in 2013 and 2014 combined.

In a separate Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Sept. 16, 2015 announcement about the report, an upcoming event notice was included,

Save the date: On Oct. 7, 2015, the Synthetic Biology Project will be releasing a new report on synthetic biology and federal regulations. More details will be forthcoming, but the report release will include a noon event [EST] at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

I haven’t been able to find any more information about this proposed report launch but you may want to check the Synthetic Biology Project website for details as they become available. ETA Oct. 1, 2015: The new report titled: Leveraging Synthetic Biology’s Promise and Managing Potential Risk: Are We Getting It Right? will be launched on Oct. 15, 2015 according to an Oct. 1, 2015 notice,

As more applications based on synthetic biology come to market, are the existing federal regulations adequate to address the risks posed by this emerging technology?

Please join us for the release of our new report, Leveraging Synthetic Biology’s Promise and Managing Potential Risk: Are We Getting It Right? Panelists will discuss how synthetic biology applications would be regulated by the U.S. Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, how this would affect the market pathway of these applications and whether the existing framework will protect human health and the environment.

A light lunch will be served.

Speakers

Lynn Bergeson, report author; Managing Partner, Bergeson & Campbell

David Rejeski, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program

Thursday,October 15th, 2015
12:00pm – 2:00pm

6th Floor Board Room

Directions

Wilson Center
Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

Phone: 202.691.4000

RSVP NOW »

$81M for US National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI)

Academics, small business, and industry researchers are the big winners in a US National Science Foundation bonanza according to a Sept. 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

To advance research in nanoscale science, engineering and technology, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide a total of $81 million over five years to support 16 sites and a coordinating office as part of a new National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI).

The NNCI sites will provide researchers from academia, government, and companies large and small with access to university user facilities with leading-edge fabrication and characterization tools, instrumentation, and expertise within all disciplines of nanoscale science, engineering and technology.

A Sept. 16, 2015 NSF news release provides a brief history of US nanotechnology infrastructures and describes this latest effort in slightly more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The NNCI framework builds on the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), which enabled major discoveries, innovations, and contributions to education and commerce for more than 10 years.

“NSF’s long-standing investments in nanotechnology infrastructure have helped the research community to make great progress by making research facilities available,” said Pramod Khargonekar, assistant director for engineering. “NNCI will serve as a nationwide backbone for nanoscale research, which will lead to continuing innovations and economic and societal benefits.”

The awards are up to five years and range from $500,000 to $1.6 million each per year. Nine of the sites have at least one regional partner institution. These 16 sites are located in 15 states and involve 27 universities across the nation.

Through a fiscal year 2016 competition, one of the newly awarded sites will be chosen to coordinate the facilities. This coordinating office will enhance the sites’ impact as a national nanotechnology infrastructure and establish a web portal to link the individual facilities’ websites to provide a unified entry point to the user community of overall capabilities, tools and instrumentation. The office will also help to coordinate and disseminate best practices for national-level education and outreach programs across sites.

New NNCI awards:

Mid-Atlantic Nanotechnology Hub for Research, Education and Innovation, University of Pennsylvania with partner Community College of Philadelphia, principal investigator (PI): Mark Allen
Texas Nanofabrication Facility, University of Texas at Austin, PI: Sanjay Banerjee

Northwest Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of Washington with partner Oregon State University, PI: Karl Bohringer

Southeastern Nanotechnology Infrastructure Corridor, Georgia Institute of Technology with partners North Carolina A&T State University and University of North Carolina-Greensboro, PI: Oliver Brand

Midwest Nano Infrastructure Corridor, University of  Minnesota Twin Cities with partner North Dakota State University, PI: Stephen Campbell

Montana Nanotechnology Facility, Montana State University with partner Carlton College, PI: David Dickensheets
Soft and Hybrid Nanotechnology Experimental Resource,

Northwestern University with partner University of Chicago, PI: Vinayak Dravid

The Virginia Tech National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, PI: Michael Hochella

North Carolina Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network, North Carolina State University with partners Duke University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, PI: Jacob Jones

San Diego Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of California, San Diego, PI: Yu-Hwa Lo

Stanford Site, Stanford University, PI: Kathryn Moler

Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility, Cornell University, PI: Daniel Ralph

Nebraska Nanoscale Facility, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, PI: David Sellmyer

Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest, Arizona State University with partners Maricopa County Community College District and Science Foundation Arizona, PI: Trevor Thornton

The Kentucky Multi-scale Manufacturing and Nano Integration Node, University of Louisville with partner University of Kentucky, PI: Kevin Walsh

The Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University, Harvard University, PI: Robert Westervelt

The universities are trumpeting this latest nanotechnology funding,

NSF-funded network set to help businesses, educators pursue nanotechnology innovation (North Carolina State University, Duke University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Nanotech expertise earns Virginia Tech a spot in National Science Foundation network

ASU [Arizona State University] chosen to lead national nanotechnology site

UChicago, Northwestern awarded $5 million nanotechnology infrastructure grant

That is a lot of excitement.

Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology or how not to poison and make the planet uninhabitable

I received notice of the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology’s newest deal with the US National Science Foundation in an August 31, 2015 email University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) news release,

The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, a multi-institutional research center based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has inked a new contract with the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will provide nearly $20 million in support over the next five years.

Directed by UW-Madison chemistry Professor Robert Hamers, the center focuses on the molecular mechanisms by which nanoparticles interact with biological systems.

Nanotechnology involves the use of materials at the smallest scale, including the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. Products that use nanoscale materials range from beer bottles and car wax to solar cells and electric and hybrid car batteries. If you read your books on a Kindle, a semiconducting material manufactured at the nanoscale underpins the high-resolution screen.

While there are already hundreds of products that use nanomaterials in various ways, much remains unknown about how these modern materials and the tiny particles they are composed of interact with the environment and living things.

“The purpose of the center is to explore how we can make sure these nanotechnologies come to fruition with little or no environmental impact,” explains Hamers. “We’re looking at nanoparticles in emerging technologies.”

In addition to UW-Madison, scientists from UW-Milwaukee, the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois, Northwestern University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been involved in the center’s first phase of research. Joining the center for the next five-year phase are Tuskegee University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Iowa, Augsburg College, Georgia Tech and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

At UW-Madison, Hamers leads efforts in synthesis and molecular characterization of nanomaterials. soil science Professor Joel Pedersen and chemistry Professor Qiang Cui lead groups exploring the biological and computational aspects of how nanomaterials affect life.

Much remains to be learned about how nanoparticles affect the environment and the multitude of organisms – from bacteria to plants, animals and people – that may be exposed to them.

“Some of the big questions we’re asking are: How is this going to impact bacteria and other organisms in the environment? What do these particles do? How do they interact with organisms?” says Hamers.

For instance, bacteria, the vast majority of which are beneficial or benign organisms, tend to be “sticky” and nanoparticles might cling to the microorganisms and have unintended biological effects.

“There are many different mechanisms by which these particles can do things,” Hamers adds. “The challenge is we don’t know what these nanoparticles do if they’re released into the environment.”

To get at the challenge, Hamers and his UW-Madison colleagues are drilling down to investigate the molecular-level chemical and physical principles that dictate how nanoparticles interact with living things.
Pedersen’s group, for example, is studying the complexities of how nanoparticles interact with cells and, in particular, their surface membranes.

“To enter a cell, a nanoparticle has to interact with a membrane,” notes Pedersen. “The simplest thing that can happen is the particle sticks to the cell. But it might cause toxicity or make a hole in the membrane.”

Pedersen’s group can make model cell membranes in the lab using the same lipids and proteins that are the building blocks of nature’s cells. By exposing the lab-made membranes to nanomaterials now used commercially, Pedersen and his colleagues can see how the membrane-particle interaction unfolds at the molecular level – the scale necessary to begin to understand the biological effects of the particles.

Such studies, Hamers argues, promise a science-based understanding that can help ensure the technology leaves a minimal environmental footprint by identifying issues before they manifest themselves in the manufacturing, use or recycling of products that contain nanotechnology-inspired materials.

To help fulfill that part of the mission, the center has established working relationships with several companies to conduct research on materials in the very early stages of development.

“We’re taking a look-ahead view. We’re trying to get into the technological design cycle,” Hamers says. “The idea is to use scientific understanding to develop a predictive ability to guide technology and guide people who are designing and using these materials.”

What with this initiative and the LCnano Network at Arizona State University (my April 8, 2014 posting; scroll down about 50% of the way), it seems that environmental and health and safety studies of nanomaterials are kicking into a higher gear as commercialization efforts intensify.