Topics: Futurism, Materials Science, Nanotechnology
The National Nanotechnology Initiative promised a lot. It has delivered more.
We’re now more than two decades out from the initial announcement of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a federal program from President Bill Clinton founded in 2000 to support nanotechnology research and development in universities, government agencies, and industry laboratories across the United States. It was a significant financial bet on a field that was better known among the general public for science fiction than scientific achievement. Today it’s clear that the NNI did more than influence the direction of research in the U.S. It catalyzed a worldwide effort and spurred an explosion of creativity in the scientific community. And we’re reaping the rewards not just in medicine, but also clean energy, environmental remediation, and beyond.
Before the NNI, there were people who thought nanotechnology was a gimmick. I began my research career in chemistry, but it seemed to me that nanotechnology was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the opening of a new field that crossed scientific disciplines. In the wake of the NNI, my university, Northwestern University, made the strategic decision to establish the International Institute for Nanotechnology, which now represents more than $1 billion in pure nanotechnology research, educational programs, and supporting infrastructure. Other universities across the U.S. made similar investments, creating new institutes and interdisciplinary partnerships.
Moreover, as a new route to inter- or transdisciplinary research, which was at the core of the NNI, nanotechnology has driven a new narrative in STEM: collaboration. Nanotechnology has captured the imagination of a generation of materials scientists, chemists, physicists, and biologists to synthesize and understand new materials; as well as inspiring engineers who are trained to develop tools for making and manipulating such structures; and doctors who can use them in the clinic. Collaborative nanotechnology research at our institute unites faculty members from 32 departments across four schools at Northwestern. This diversity of training and perspective does more than broaden the scope of our research. It enables us to identify, understand and address big problems—and it helps us break down barriers between the lab and the marketplace.
A Big Bet on Nanotechnology Has Paid Off, Chad Mirkin is director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology, George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry and a professor of materials science and engineering, medicine, biomedical engineering, and chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University.