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Putting together materials and devices atom by atom in order to exploit novel properties is one of the most promising areas of investigation in everything from microelectronics to medicine. But much of the research in this field, called nanotechnology, is scattered throughout more mature disciplines, such as physics and chemistry. Likewise, federal funding is disjointed, with money flowing out of various agencies.

A national nanotech initiative could change all that. The proposal, outlined by a panel of officials from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other governmental agencies, would double federal spending on nanotech to roughly $500 million annually and would establish a series of multimillion-dollar nanotech research centers. It would also attempt to coordinate spending. President Clinton is expected to decide in September whether to include the initiative in the fiscal 2001 budget.

The increased support is critical to build the infrastructure needed to develop nanotech in the United States, says Mike Roco, a program director at NSF and chair of the Interagency Working Group on Nanoscience, Engineering and Technology that drafted the proposal.The initiative also could boost the image of nanotechnology (see “Nanotechnology: The Hope and the Hype,” TR March/April 1999). “This erects a flag that there’s a field called nanotech,” suggests Richard Smalley, director of Rice University’s Nanoscale Science and Technology Center.

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