In an article in the September issue of Nature ("Nanotechnology: Small wonders"), Corie Lok reviews the beginnings and accomplishments of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) over the last ten years.

The article attributes the creation of the NNI to four factors:

– A booming US economy, particularly in the high tech sector

– Support from the Clinton administration as it entered its last year in office

– Developments within the then emerging science of nanotechnology that caught the public’s attention

– Visionary scientists and engineers who could clearly and in terms everyone could understand communicate what this new field of science was about and how it would benefit everyone. The late Dr. Richard Smalley and Mihail Roco are noted by Ms. Lok for their work in getting NNI started.

NNI’s success in creating research centers and legitimizing nanotech in the eyes of the general public, leading  to a flow of venture capital to start-up companies that planned to commercialize the results of nanotech research, is offset by what Lok and others consider its biggest flaw, a lack of focus on the possible adverse effects of nanomaterials on the environment and human health. NNI is now beginning to fund research in these areas.

As the article notes, NNI deserves a great deal of the credit for nurturing nanotechnology over the past decade. But as nanotech has begun to mature, expectations of returns on the investments of both public and private capital in the form of practical and commercial applications and products have risen. In many ways, nanotech and nanoindustries are still at a beginning stage and applications of nanotech in such fields as medicine are still being developed and explored.

NNI faces an uncertain future, with bills that would reauthorize and continue funding for NNI, such as HR 554, the "National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendments Act", passed in the House in February 2009  and HR 5116, the "America COMPETES Reauthorization Act", passed in the House in June 2010 awaiting action in the Senate. S. 1482, the Senate version of the "National Nanotechnology Initiatives Amendment Act" – despite the same title, they are not companion bills – remains stuck in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.  As Congress returns from the August recess, these bills may be brought up for debate before Congress adjourns so members may run for re-election.  It is also possible that the bills may be brought up for debate in a "lame-duck" session following the elections.