The Nanotechnology Education Act (H.R. 4502), was introduced early last week by Rep. David Wu (D-1st-OR) and co-sponsored by Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-3rd-Ill). The bill has as it’s purpose the establishment of a grant program aimed at helping secondary schools, colleges and universities to established and improve nanotechnology education programs and facilities.

The bill notes that nanotechnology "is generating scientific and technological breakthroughs that will benefit society by improving the way many things are produced" and that

Nanotechnology is likely to have a significant, positive impact on the security, economic well-being, and health of Americans as fields related to nanotechnology expand.

the bill announces its formidable goal:

In order to maximize the benefits of nanotechnology to individuals in the United States, the United States must maintain world leadership in the field, including nanoscience and microtechnology, in the face of determined competition from other nations.

To maintain that level of world leadership

the United States must make a long-term investment in educating United States students in secondary schools and institutions of higher education, so that the students are able to conduct nanoscience research and develop and commercialize nanotechnology applications.

Preparing United States students for careers in nanotechnology, including nanoscience, requires that the students have access to the necessary scientific tools, including scanning electron microscopes designed for teaching, and requires training to enable teachers and professors to use those tools in the classroom and the laboratory.

H.R. 4502 states it’s purpose:

is to strengthen the capacity of United States secondary schools and institutions of higher education to prepare students for careers in nanotechnology by providing grants to those schools and institutions to provide the tools necessary for such preparation.

The Director of the National Science Foundation would be directed to "establish a nanotechnology in the schools program". To support the program, "the director shall award grants of not more than $400,000 to eligible institutions". The bill would define "eligible institutions" very broadly and would include:

1) public, private, parochial and charter schools offering one or more advanced placement science courses,

2) community colleges,

3) four year institutions of higher learning (colleges and universities), and

4) "informal learning science and technology centers". The bill does not define these informal centers any further, but this may be clarified and defined further in a committee mark-up session.

Grant funds would be used for

1) the acquisition of equipment and software for use in classrooms

2) to develop and provide educational services; that is, it would be used by teachers and other instructors to develop classes in nanotechnology

3) to pay for teacher education in nanotechnology

Equipment and software purchased with grant funds by colleges and universities would be required by the bill to be used primarily by undergraduate programs and would also be required to be mostly made in the United States.

The Director of the NSF, no later than six months following passage of HR 4502 and it’s being signed into law, would need to establish the process and procedures for eligible institutions to apply for the grants. The procedures, like all other procedures for applying for government grants, would need to be published in the Federal Register and commented on by the public before going into effect. Although the bill doesn’t state it, the procedures would probably also be posted to a government website for downloading. In selecting recipients for these grants, the Director would

(1) select geographically diverse institutions; grants could not all be given to institutions in one area, for example, schools in New England or California. The grants would need to be spread around the United States.

2) The Director of NSF would be required to encourage the applications of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and minority institutions as defined by section 365 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1067k).

3) Select recipients located in states participating in the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

Institutions receiving these grants would need to raise funds equal to 1/4 of the grant amount. And, if the grant exceeds $100,000, the institution would need to wait for 2 years before it could apply for another grant. Each institution would be required to submit a report to the Director of the NSF no later than one year after the grant was awarded regarding its use of grant funds. Every three years, the Director would, on the basis of these reports, evaluate the program, assessing both short and long term impacts of activities supported by the grants. No later than six months after the evaluation, the Director would submit a report to Congress – in its current form, the bill doesnot specify which committee or committees the report would be submitted to. Again, this is something that may be clarified in a committee mark-up session. The Director’s report would contain "recommendations concerning the continued need for Federal support of the program. . . ."

HR 4502 authorizes an appropriation of $40 million for FY 2011 and necessary funds for 2012-2014. The bill has been assigned to the House Committee on Science and Technology. No hearings have been scheduled.

To date, only a handful of colleges and universities offer courses or degree programs in nanotechnology, leading to a shortage of trained workers available for the jobs that are and will be created in nanoindustries. The grants that the Nanotechnology Education Act would distribute would represent an investment in preparing a trained workforce capable of stepping into those jobs.

It should be noted, however, that the bill is being introduced against the shadow of President’ Obama’s statement in in State of the Union speech to freeze all discretionary spending by the federal government for three years:

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years.  Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected.  But all other discretionary government programs will.  Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t.  And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. 

As with other nanotechnology related legislation filed during the 111th Congress, we’ll monitor HR 4502’s progress and provide updates.