4th assessment of the US’s National Nanotechnology Initiative (found some info. about Canada in the rept.!)

It seems there a number of reports concerning the US National Nanotechnology Initiative and their efforts and responses to the PCAST 2010 recommendations (I commented on another of their reports in my Dec. 13, 2011 posting). This fourth report/assessment was submitted by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and focuses on efforts from various government agencies to follow recommendations from that 2010 PCAST assessment and set of recommendations.

According to the April 27, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

PCAST found that the Federal agencies in the NNI have made substantial progress in addressing many of the 2010 recommendations that were aimed at maintaining U.S. leadership in nanotechnology. One of the primary goals of the NNI is to stay ahead of heavily-investing competitors such as China, South Korea, the European Union, and Russia. Overall, PCAST concluded that the NNI remains a successful cooperative venture that is supporting high-quality research, facilitating the translation of discoveries into new commercial products, and ensuring the Nation’s continued global leadership in this important field.

The PCAST assessment particularly commends the expanded efforts of the NNCO [National Nanotechnology Coordination Office] in the area of commercialization and coordination with industry, and the NNCO’s release of a focused research strategy for addressing environmental, health, and safety (EHS) implications of nanotechnology. In addition, the assessment recognizes NNI’s strong and growing portfolio of research on the societal implications of nanotechnology, nanotechnology education, and public outreach.

Dexter Johnson at his Nanoclast blog on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) website comments in his May 1, 2012 posting,

Okay, pat on the back, job well done…uh, wait, there are still some new recommendations that PCAST would like to see addressed.  You can find them in the PDF of the full report on page vii. They fall into the areas of strategic planning, program management, metrics for assessing nanotechnology’s commercial and societal impacts, and…wait for it…increased support for EHS research.

Additional support for EHS research might be a required element for every PCAST report in the future. More interesting to me, however, is this continued emphasis on improved “metrics for assessing nanotechnology’s commercial and societal impacts.”

Dexter goes on to observe that many countries and corporations are interested in better metrics regarding  nanotechnology and its impacts and hints that he has a few ideas for better metrics.

I’ve looked at the report and found, to my surprise, mention of Canada. In analyzing the US NNI efforts, they also compare US government funding and corporate to that in other countries. On page 14 (print version; p. 30 PDF) of the PCAST 4th Assessment of the NNI, there’s a table which shows the top 10 countries for spending on nanotechnology,

As you can see, Canadian funding has been relatively flat throughout 2008 – 2010. It appears to have decreased slightly in 2009 and remained the same in 2010.

Aside: I’d dearly love to know how they sourced their data. A couple of years ago, a Canadian Member of Parliament (Peter Julian) asked for similar figures and received some 80 pages of Excel spreadsheets from various department listing any number of research projects that had been funded. (I’d asked Julian’s parliamentary assistant for a copy of the government’s response to his question, which is how I came to see that mess of paper.)

For anyone familiar with the Canadian scene (industrial research in Canada is rare), this next chart won’t be any surprise, from page 14 (print version; p. 30 PDF) of the PCAST 4th Assessment of the NNI,

However, this may be a surprise, from page 15 (print version; p. 31 PDF) of the PCAST 4th Assessment of the NNI,

Good grief! Canada is in the top five countries for venture capital spending on nanotechnology. Of course, we had our banner year in 2008, with quite a dip in 2009 but it looks like we rebounded mildly in 2010.

It’s always interesting for me to analyze the US nanotechnology efforts in relationship to the Canadian efforts (as well as, getting a sense of the international scene). Actually, I can’t analyze our efforts since the Canadian government doesn’t tend to share information (or provides reams of meaningless data) with its citizens so I’m driven to finding it in US government documents and materials provided by international governmental organizations such as the OECD (Organization for Econ0mic Cooperation and Development).

Getting back to the report, which after all is about the US situation, I’m particularly interested in the recommendations for metrics (thank you, Dexter) and EHS. From page 22 (print version; p. 38 PDF) of the PCAST 4th Assessment of the NNI (I have edited out some footnotes),

Agencies should develop a mission-appropriate definition of nanotechnology that enables the tracking of specific nanotechnology investments supported at the program level. The definition and funding details should be published in agency implementation plans to promote clarity.

This recommendation enables each agency to develop a mission-appropriate definition of nanotechnol­ogy to characterize its nanotechnology portfolio. Requiring each agency to publish its definition and the resulting budget allocations will improve clarity across the Federal nanotechnology portfolio and ensure that nanotechnology investments are accurately characterized.

The NNCO should track the development of metrics for quantifying the Federal nanotechnology portfolio and implement them to assess NNI outputs.

Current Federal efforts to measure public and private investment, scientific productivity, and workforce have been inconsistent and decentralized. The publication of agency-specific data will enable the NNCO to consistently track nanotechnology investments across the Federal government and enable it to report NNI impacts with greater confidence and transparency.

There is an extensive and growing body of high-quality academic research that is already working toward the establishment of nanotechnology metrics by drawing upon bibliometrics data from the public domain (e.g., publication and patent data). … Bibliometrics data are used as indicators of productivity beyond academia, often in the absence of other metrics from the private sector. As nanotechnology continues to mature and move closer toward commercialization, efforts to more accurately capture economic returns are picking up pace. Examples include the March 2012 International Symposium on Assessing Economic Impacts of Nanotechnologies sponsored jointly by the NNI and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development held in Washington, DC, [mentioned in my March 29, 2012 posting] as well as the upcoming 2012 National Research Council review of the NNI.

A final area in need of metrics development is in the quantification of the nanotechnology workforce.  [emphasis mine] Accurately categorizing agency-level nanotechnology investments will facilitate the identification of nanotechnology trainees, including the academic, scientific, and professional nanotechnology workforce for which there is currently a paucity of data…. One area where such tracking would have significant impact is in the identification of nanotechnology-related jobs for which there are no standard occu­pational codes. Good data on the workforce will enable the implementation of additional measures to identify and mitigate future threats to occupational health and safety.

PCAST recommends that NNCO serve as a central repository to collect these metrics and leverage advances in metrics-development to collect, track, and analyze data regarding publications, patents, educational activities, and the workforce to produce and publish its own statistics on behalf of the NSET. This under­taking is an integral component of cross-agency coordination of the Federal nanotechnology portfolio.

That first recommendation seems problematic. The notion of agencies developing mission-specific definitions of nanotechnology, as recommended, sets the stage for multiple and competing definitions in a situation where you want to standardize as much as possible.

Unfortunately, the alternative is not an improvement. An attempt to standardize across all agencies would most probably lead to years of meetings and discussions before anything was ever measured.

I’m not quite as confident about bibliometrics as the authors of this report are but, as they hint, oftentimes it’s the only quantifiable data available. While there is much talk about establishing other metrics, there is no hint as to how this will be done or who will do it or whether money will be allocated for this purpose.

The recommendations for further EHS research, from pp. 22-3 (print version; pp. 38-9 PDF) of the PCAST 4th Assessment of the NNI, include (I have edited out a reference to an appendix),

The NSET should establish high-level, cross-agency authoritative and accountable governance of Federal nanotechnology-related EHS research so that the knowledge created as a result of Federal investments can better inform policy makers.

PCAST acknowledges that the NSET has acted on our recommendation to identify a central coordina­tor for nanotechnology-related EHS research within NNCO. The EHS coordinator has done a laudable job developing and communicating the 2011 NNI EHS research strategy. However, there is still a lack of integration between nanotechnology-related EHS research funded through the NNI and the kind of information policy makers need to effectively manage potential risks from nanomaterials. The estab­lishment of the Emerging Technologies Interagency Policy Coordination Committee (ETIPC) through OSTP has begun to bridge that gap, but without close integration between ETIPC and the NEHI working group, the gap may not be sufficiently narrowed. OSTP and the NSET Subcommittee should expand the charter of the NEHI working group to enable the group to address cross-agency nanotechnology-related policy issues more broadly.

The NSET should increase investment in cross-cutting areas of EHS that promote knowledge transfer such as informatics, partnerships, and instrumentation development.

The 2011 NNI EHS research strategy acknowledges the critical role that informatics, partnerships, and instrumentation development play in a comprehensive approach to addressing nanotechnology risks to human health and the environment. Nascent efforts in informatics should be supported so that advances can be accelerated in this critical cross-cutting area. Rather than continue to support the proliferation of databases that results from many new nano-EHS projects, the effort should be directed at enabling diverse communities to extract meaningful information from each other’s work. New networks that connect researchers together, along with new tools for extracting information from Federally funded research, should be established and supported through the NNI. The findings of the December 2011 workshop to establish a Nanoinformatics 2020 Roadmap19 in conjunction with the 2011 NNI EHS research strategy can serve as a guide for new work in this area.

Significant progress has been made in the area of partnerships with numerous examples of mul­tistakeholder and interagency collaboration underway. One of these is the Nanorelease Project,20 which brings together five NNI agencies, non-governmental organizations, a labor union, and several companies, among others, to develop methods for measuring the release of nanomaterials from com­mercial products. A specific area where better coordination could occur is in the area of occupational safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should work with companies in a non-enforcement capacity to develop better tools for hazard communication similar to the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety’s (NIOSH) partnership program. This is especially important as the United States seeks to bring its hazard communication standard in alignment with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. Greater engagement by OSHA would also begin to address some of the difficulties companies face in implementing good health and safety programs in their nanomaterial workplaces …

New modes of international cooperation, such as the joint funding of two environmental-impacts consortia by the EPA and the United Kingdom, have also emerged since the 2010 PCAST report. The NNI should increase funding for these cross-cutting activities to leverage the U.S. investment in nanotechnology-related EHS research.

The wealth of abbreviations makes this section a little hard to read. As I understand it, the recommendations are aimed at improving use of their current and future resources by better coordinating the research efforts, sharing data (with a special eye to providing information policymakers can use effectively), and collaborating internationally on EHS research.

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