The US Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies: an Interview with Julia Moore

bridges vol. 14, July 2007 / Nanotechnology Focus

The following is an interview with Julia Moore who serves as deputy director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, established in 2005. The mission statement of this project is to "help ensure that as nanotechnologies advance, possible risks are minimized, public and consumer engagement remains strong, and the potential benefits of these new technologies are realized."

Julia Moore has long-time experience working on the Congressional, public affairs, and public policy aspects of international science, technology, and security issues. Prior to her current position, she was senior advisor in the Office of International Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation and, among many positions, served for five years as director of Legislative & Public Affairs at the National Science Foundation.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}
Ms. Moore, you are the deputy director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnology. Who had the idea to put this project into practice?

Julia Moore

Pew Charitable Trusts, located in Philadelphia, is a major US organization for informing the public and advancing policy solutions. Because of their long-term commitment to look at public policies regarding new technologies, they have a lot of projects such as human genetics and biotechnology, particularly involving food and biotechnology. When Pew Charitable Trusts began to look over the horizon for the next technology that would require attention from policymakers in the US, nanotechnology was identified as the next issue. They approached the Wilson Center four years ago, because the Wilson Center was the first policy center in Washington, DC, that brought people together from government and NGO groups, as well as from industries, to talk about nanotechnology. The talks dealt particularly with:

· What kind of impact nanotechnology would have on regulatory systems

· How it might be accepted or not accepted by the public

· Whether the media would focus on it and how this focus would shape public opinion

· Whether there are safety assessment tools to measure nanotechnology on the environment

· How nanotechnology could affect human health

· What risk research has to be done.

These were very open meetings for people who were mostly interested in new technologies in general. Even if they were not necessarily interested specifically in nanotechnology, they appreciated that this research field is becoming more important. Representatives from Pew Charitable Trusts attended those meetings and decided that a policy project like ours would be useful, and after two years of discussion we decided that we would join forces and develop this initiative. So the Wilson Center and Pew Charitable Trusts came together and initiated the project.

What goal does the Wilson Center want to reach with this project?

The main purpose or the stated goal of the project is to make sure that the benefits of nanotechnology are maximized and the risks are minimized. I think that there is a certain . . . I'm from the Midwest of the United States, and the director of the Wilson Center, Lee H. Hamilton, is a former Congressman from Indiana . . . a certain Midwestern practicality that underlies everything that the Wilson Center does. We have a quite sophisticated policy sense that is grounded in the real world. We know that nothing in life is perfectly risk-free, and we recognize that nanotechnology will have a lot of benefits and could change society. But every new development has risks. So the purpose of the project, hopefully, is to get the best from nanotechnology for everyone.

From your point of view, which are the current highlights in the nanotechnology research in the United States?

Well, I think that the United States has one of the most diverse research portfolios in the world. Although investment in nanotechnology is a current worldwide phenomenon, I think the United States has a broader spectrum of research in nanotechnology than most other countries or regions.

I would say its strongest and most promising areas of work are in the medical and health fields, where nano-based drugs are already on the market and particularly new diagnostic tools are being developed.

The Wilson Center recently published the "Nanofrontiers" report, written by Karen F. Schmidt, where we brought together about 50 of the top leading nanotechnology researchers, mostly from the United States to explore the benefits of nanotechnology in perhaps 20 or 30 years, e.g., possibilities to treat diseases like Alzheimer's.

Is there a good mood in the political landscape for nanotechnology? And what are the needs for nanotechnology in politics?

In Washington, DC, a lot of partisan discussion takes place but there isn't serious disagreement over fundamental principles of and approaches to nanotechnology. In my opinion, it would be important to differentiate between questions about the money put into risk research, and questions related to whether or not the US has a plan or strategy for that research. There is also a fairly good consensus among industry and among government, and among NGO-groups as well, that adequate risk research has to be done.

We do need more political commitment to the need to educate the public better about nanotechnology and to create a nano-enabled workforce, and to persuade industry and NGOs, as well for government to work towards a greater awareness of nanotechnology among the public.

Do you think there is enough money available for the needs of public education?

No! And unlike in the area of risk research, there isn't the critical traction to get that money. And I think that money has to come not only from the government but also from the private sector.

However, it all depends on where you sit. In Europe, many of my colleagues think that the US does a very good job in the area of informal math-and-science education. We do have lots of excellent science centers and natural history museums and planetariums. We also have good programs on public broadcasting as well as educational games on computers. They look to us, in fact, for a lot of innovation in this area. But I don't see that this US capacity is being focused on nanotechnology. It's really a concern because, since 2004, the US awareness of nanotechnology has hardly changed - despite popular media attention to nanotechnology in films, or books like Michael Crichton's Prey.

In your opinion, who are the most important private sector investors in nanotechnology research in the US?

The best source of information for that question is Lux Research in New York, a company that provides strategic advice and ongoing intelligence for emerging technologies - the electronics industry, the chemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry.

Clearly people think especially about pharmaceutical areas using or researching nanotechnlogy because of the very high value there. Right now, one of the areas where we see the most immediate return on investment is in personal care products like sunscreen, but over the long run I am very hopeful for investments in sustainable energy. I think about longer-lasting, better, and cheaper batteries and also about much more economical production of solar energy, which will be possible because of nanotechnology. Another important focus is IT, because it's such a fast moving sector.

Talking about the role of spin-offs and innovative entrepreneurs in nanotechnology research - how do you see the situation in the US compared to the one in Europe?

One of the strengths in the United States - which doesn't only concern nanotechnology, but also other areas - is certainly small- and medium-sized research enterprises. That is not contrary to the importance of large companies like DuPont, GE, Hewlett-Packard, and Merck, which are investing big research dollars in nanotechnology, but a lot of the US innovation is happening in small companies like university spin-offs. They are developing intellectual property and are mostly located in traditional places like Silicon Valley, San Francisco, or Boston. That's where a lot of important pre-commercialization research is being done. This is an important factor if you try to compare Europe and the US and why dollar figures alone just don't say much about the innovation, which brings better quality of life, jobs, and economic growth. How dollars are invested is perhaps as important as the total number, because it's easy to point out a lot of numbers, but it's important to understand what's behind these numbers.

I also think that entrepreneurship in the United States - even though it's hard anywhere - is easier than in Europe. We have a venture capital system that has proven itself, particularly in the IT-sector and in biotechnologies. So the structures in place are better.

If you look at the US budget for FY 2008, what to you think about its funding of nanotechnology?

My answer to that question has two parts. First, I think that the budget for FY 2008 is adequate for applications research. Nevertheless, I think that in this field, which is so promising, there must always be more money. I would particularly like to see more money in instrumentation and education in nanotechnology.

The other side is that the budget doesn't explicate whether or not there is enough money to look into possible risks. It's always hard to answer that question, because I don't think that the US government has always been completely transparent about how much money is going toward risk research and what its definitions are. The Senate Commerce Committee submitted a request to the Government Accounting Office to get detailed numbers. Their work should be done by the end of this year, and I think at that time we'll have a better idea about this.

But as already mentioned, numbers aren't as important as having a plan or a strategy. These are not our words, but those of the chairman of the House Science Committee, Bart Gordon. An effective risk-research strategy was long ago promised to Congress, but still doesn't exist. Furthermore, I think that no country - however much money it spends on nanotechnology - has the capacity to do all the risk research, nor should they do it all themselves. What sense does it make for Europe and the US to do the same risk research? I think that work on a strategy and agenda has to be developed on a global basis.

The US has taken some good steps in that direction, especially by being engaged in the OECD, which established different working groups. One of them is moving in the direction of developing an effective inventory within an international risk-research framework.

Which measures would you recommend for targeting public opinion and public education?

In the US we have a very localized system of education. Every program in this area must be implemented state by state, district by district. This is difficult, but I think we should use the mechanism of informal math-and-science education like games or contests, where you could easily communicate nanotechnology. We need to do training for teachers who teach math and science in US schools in order to bring this knowledge to the school level. I also think that broadcast coverage of nanotechnology is quite low. We have some figures tracking both US and Canadian broadcast coverage, and there is almost nothing on television about nanotechnology. Even in the traditional print media science and business pages, information about nanotechnology is still surprisingly rare.

What do you think about the legal framework for nanotechnology, especially intellectual property rights?

I think the US Patent and Trademark Office is having a hard time with nanotechnology and they - like every US government agency - have troubles with the lack of an international agreement on definitions of what is nano and what is not. The volume of these patent applications is quite heavy, and they don't have all the resources that are needed. So they're playing a catch-up game.

From your point of view, which of the current research fields in nanotechnology will prevail in the future?

I think regenerative medicine is a very exciting field for research. But also the energy sector is going to be one that people are most excited about. One reason is the costs of energy, particularly looking at countries like China with greater demands for energy in the future. So I think it's going to be energy. Further details are also available in our Nanofrontiers report, which can be downloaded at the Web site of the Wilson Center.

Links above:
Nanofrontiers report:

Consumer Product Inventory:


This interview was conducted on June 1, 2007, by Alexander Hölbl.