From Vision to Reality: The NNI at Five Years

By Mihail "Mike" Roco

National Science Foundation

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Science and engineering are at the heart of the human endeavor leading to a "knowledge society." They also are the primary drivers of global technological competition. The newest key player in this science and technology arena is nanotechnology, the ability to organize individual atoms and molecules in both natural and man-made systems. It is on the nanoscale, in fact, where the fundamental properties and functions of all systems emerge and may be changed. With its ability to control matter on this fundamental level, nanotechnology has the potential to transform society by advancing our understanding of nature, enhancing industrial productivity and medical care, and expanding the limits of sustainable economic growth.

In 2000, however, we were still asking ourselves if the promise of nanotechnology was for real. The answer to this question became clearer over the next several years, until finally — in 2005 — industry, businesses, and governments in more than 60 countries invested over $8 billion in nanotechnology research and development (R&D) with reported production of over $100 billion. The worldwide rate of increase for both R&D and products incorporating nanotechnology has been over 25 percent.

The trigger for this investment came from the National Science Foundation and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) with their long-term and inclusive approach in governing nanotechnology. This investment led to strategic programs such as the Network for Computational Nanotechnology, which has nearly 9,000 users annually; the Institute for Nanoelectronics, which is working on beyond CMOS transistors; and the Center of Excellence in Biosciences, which is based out of Purdue University.

The development of Purdue's Birck Nanotechnology Center (BNC) as one of the leading national and international platforms of new technology has symbolic meaning. It reflects the transition from a largely fragmented field just a few years ago to one where multidisciplinary talent, government and industry resources, and various partnerships and business practices come together to address the complexity of nanosystems and converging technologies and their integration into applications. The BNC is a measure of success of what the NNI foresaw through a "grand coalition" in its 2000 research directions report. But the BNC has moved even faster than what was expected five years ago. It has reached the critical mass needed for major advancements and international leadership in computational nanotechnology and nanoelectronics. It is multidisciplinary; has multiagency and industry support (NSF, NASA, DOD, NIH, 21st Century Research and Technology Fund of the State, Semiconductor Research Corporation, etc.); does outreach with the public; supports research, education, entrepreneurship, and industry; and has user facilities.

This is part of a national and international effort sparked by the NNI in 2000. The NNI has established more than 50 large research and education centers in its first five years. It also is supporting approximately 4,000 active R&D projects, yielding over 50 percent of patents and highly cited nanotechnology articles worldwide. The NSF alone educated and trained about 10,000 students and teachers in 2005.

Major advances in technology are often marked by the process of convergence and divergence of the fields of science and engineering. One of the most significant developments in modern times is convergence at the nanoscale. With Discovery Park, Purdue University will become an engine of this convergence.

Today, nanotechnology is expanding from passive nanostructured components to active nanosystems and from scientific discovery to technological innovation in areas such as advanced materials, electronics, and pharmaceuticals. Nanotechnology also is expanding to new areas of relevance, such as biomedical, energy, environment, agriculture and food systems, and controlled molecular architectures for manufacturing. And it is expanding at the global level and on an accelerating path. For this reason, it is essential to have a robust R&D program, select the most suitable investments, anticipate possible scenarios, and address societal aspects from the beginning of large R&D investments.

Currently, the main question is what are the most important challenges to realizing the promise of nanotechnology? My response would be promoting transformative nanotechnology for human benefit and competitive advantage, aligning nanotechnology projects with societal needs and aspirations, and taking a visionary approach in planning and keeping the engine of innovation moving through fundamental research in a new era of accelerated change and converging technologies. Discovery Park is a new kind of organization — a multifunctional S&E platform — that is equipped to best address these challenges.


Mike Roco Mihail "Mike" Roco is senior advisor for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation and has chaired the U.S. National Science and Technology Council’s subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) since its inception in 2000. He also coordinates NSF’s Grant Opportunities for Liaison with Industry program. Previously he was professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Kentucky and held visiting professorships at several other universities.

Roco is credited with 13 inventions. He has authored or coauthored numerous archival articles and 12 books, including Particulate Two-phase Flow, Nanostructure Science and Technology, Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, and The Coevolution of Human Potential and Converging Technologies. Roco was a researcher in multiphase systems, visualization techniques, computer simulations, nanoparticles, and nanosystems in the 1980s, and in 1991 initiated the first federal government program focused on nanoscale science and engineering. He also is a key architect of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Under his chairmanship, the NNI budget has increased about tenfold to $1 billion. In addition, he coordinated the preparation of the U.S. National Science and Technology reports Nanotechnology Research Directions (1999) and National Nanotechnology Initiative (2000).

Roco is a correspondent member of the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences, a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, a fellow of the Institute of Physics, and a fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. He is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Nanoparticle Research and has served as editor for the Journal of Fluids Engineering and the Journal of Measurement Science and Technology. He is a member of the Executive Governance Board for Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, the Review Board for the National Research Council Institute (Canada), the International Risk Governance Council, and boards in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Roco was selected "Engineer of the Year" by NSF and the U.S. National Society of Professional Engineers in 1999 and again in 2004. Among his other honors are Germany's Carl Duisberg Award, a Burgers Professorship Award in the Netherlands, the U.S. University Research Professorship award, and a 2002 Best of Small Tech Award as "Leader of the American Nanotechnology Revolution." Forbes recognized him in 2003 as first among "Nanotechnology’s Power Brokers," Scientific American named him one of 2004’s top 50 technology leaders, and NASA Brief listed him among 2005's Top 50 Innovators. He also received the AIChE Forum award in 2005.

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  • Mihail "Mike" Roco (2006), "From Vision to Reality: The NNI at Five Years,"

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