National Nanotechnology Initiative Supplement to the President’s 2019 Budget

The Policy

What it does

Outlines the budget proposed by the National Nanotechnology Initiative for nanotechnology-related investments in the President’s 2019 Budget and provides information on progress made toward goals of the initiative.



On August 16, 2018, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) published its Supplement to the President’s 2019 Budget. This document supplements the President’s 2019 budget request and serves as the NNI’s Annual Report called for under the provisions of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 (15 USC §7501).

NNI Budget and Program Plans

For the 2019 budget, the President requests nearly $1.4 billion for the NNI to support all levels of nanotechnology research, including basic research, early-stage applied research, and technology transfer efforts. The President’s 2019 Budget supports research and development (R&D) efforts at 12 agencies. Of these agencies, five make up 95% of the investments:

  • Health and Human Services (HHS)/National Institutes of Health (NIH);
  • National Science Foundation (NSF);
  • Department of Energy (DOE);
  • Department of Defense (DOD); and
  • Department of Commerce (DOC)/National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The budget allocates funding to five main Program Component Areas (PCAs):

  1. Signature Initiatives and Grand Challenges—Comprised of six subareas: Nanomanufacturing, Nanoelectronics, Nanotechnology Knowledge Infrastructure, Nanosensors, Water, and Future Computing. This PCA collectively addresses initiatives and challenges associated with sensor development, water sustainability, nanomaterial manufacturing, and future computing. For example, under this PCA, several agencies work collaboratively toward the development of sensors for monitoring conditions in agricultural settings, for understanding energy processes, and for use in wearable or implantable biosensors. This PCA also comprises agency efforts to advance nanoinformatics, which is the practice of determining what information is important to the nanoscale, collecting this information and disseminating it to the nanotechnology community.
  2. Foundational Research—Includes early-stage, basic research that provides a fundamental understanding of all aspects of nanomaterials. Agencies investing a large percentage of their NNI investments in PCA 2 include DOE, DOD, NSF, and NASA.This foundational research involves the pursuit of knowledge regarding physical, biological, structural, and mechanical properties of nanomaterials, as well as discovery and synthesis of novel nanomaterials.
  3. Applications, Devices, and Systems—Supports R&D on devices and systems used in a variety of applications including sensors, medical devices, and computing paradigms. NIH invests significantly in PCA 3 in the form of medical devices, nanotherapeutics, and drug delivery systems, reflecting their focus on human health. Similarly, DOD investments in PCA 3 reflect their focus on defense, with research centered on development of devices for communication, motion sensing, and surveillance.
  4. Infrastructure and Instrumentation—Provides funding for the facilities, equipment, and workforce, including workforce education programs, that support nanotechnology-related R&D. The majority of investments under PCA 4 go toward user facilities and equipment, including the NSF’s National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI) and the DOE’s Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRCs). Of note, however, is the reduced funding request by NIST, which will reduce support for U.S. scientists using its facilities as well as delay upgrades to facility equipment.
  5. Environment, Health, and Safety—Supports the responsible development and use of nanotechnology through fundamental research on the potential environmental, health, and safety implications of nanomaterials (nanoEHS). Of note are two NSF-sponsored university-based Centers for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, one at Duke University (CEINT) and the other at University of California Los Angeles (UC CEIN). In addition, NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) works to understand the fundamental effects of nanomaterials on human health, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) focuses on safety of nanomaterials in the workplace. As important as understanding environmental and health implications of nanomaterials is the development of standard and globally recognized terminology, nomenclature, specifications, and tests, which is also a key part of PCA 5.

Of the five PCAs, Foundational Research receives the largest percentage of funding (39%) followed by Applications, Devices, and Systems (28%). Thus, a large portion of agencies’ nanotechnology investments originate from foundational, or basic, research programs. Because the success rate of proposals originating from foundational R&D programs can be difficult to predict, actual NNI investments can be larger than the requested or estimated investments. For example, in 2017, actual investments ($1.55 billion) were higher than both the amount requested in the 2017 budget ($1.44 billion) and the amount estimated in the 2018 budget ($1.47 billion).

As required by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, the report also addresses NNI’s use of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs to advance the development of nanotechnology by engaging small businesses in the Federal R&D process. The majority of NNI agencies have at least one of these programs, with several agencies having both SBIR and STTR programs. Furthermore, agencies like NSF and NIH have included nanotechnology-specific topics in their solicitations. Although most solicitations for these programs do not explicitly call for nanotechnology, there has been a steady increase since 2013 in the amount of nanotechnology-related SBIR and STTR funding.

Progress towards the NNI Goals

The document concludes with a discussion of progress toward the four goals of the NNI, which were originally introduced in the 2004 NNI Strategic Plan.


Goal 1. Advance a World-Class Nanotechnology Research and Development Program

The first goal of the NNI is to support basic and early-stage applied research to enable future discoveries that will ensure the United States remains a world leader in nanotechnology. To this end, NNI is pursuing research in several areas including increasing fundamental understanding of nanomaterial properties, expanding the reach of materials science, advancing measurement and sensing capabilities, and developing new tools and devices.

Goal 2. Foster the Transfer of New Technologies into Products for Commercial and Public Benefit

The NNI’s second goal is to facilitate the transfer of research and development breakthroughs achieved under Goal 1 into applications that the private sector can bring to market. Goal 2 ensures that basic and early-stage research is carried through to later stages of development, supporting private sector investments, as well as promoting public benefit. In addition to running programs that foster entrepreneurship, like NSF I-Corps, NNI is targeting several sectors for technology transfer, including information and communication technologies, aerospace and automotive markets, clinical settings, and energy and infrastructure. Furthermore, NNI is working with various organizations, like ASTM International, to develop standards, a crucial aspect to commercialization of nanotechnologies.

Goal 3. Develop and Sustain Educational Resources, a Skilled Workforce, and a Dynamic Infrastructure and Toolset to Advance Nanotechnology

The third goal of the NNI centers on creating and fostering an environment with the physical, cyber, and human infrastructure that can support the pursuit of Goals 1 and 2. The NNI maintains a network of research centers and user facilities that provide access to instrumentation and computer modeling tools. Currently, NNI has a network of 16 sites that provide university-based user facilities to researchers from academia, industry, and government. In addition to the current facilities and other available resources, NNI is working to develop new tools and instrumentation for use in nanotechnology research. NNI also prioritizes the engagement of students in academic research at the community college, undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral levels, as well as outreach to the K-12 community.

Goal 4. Support Responsible Development of Nanotechnology

The fourth goal of the NNI is to advance nanotechnology research in a safe and responsible manner through awareness of potential ethical, legal, and societal implications (ELSI) of nanotechnology. NNI accomplishes this goal by continually working to understand the effects of nanomaterials on the human body as well as the environment. This goal includes understanding the potential exposure to nanomaterials in the workplace and mitigating risks through dissemination of knowledge of implementation of best practices.



The NNI, established in 2001, is tasked with coordinating Federal nanotechnology R&D efforts to maintain United States competitiveness in nanotechnology. In 2003, a few years after the inception of NNI, President Bush signed into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which provided structure and authorized funding for the NNI. This act also requires the NNI produce an annual report that summarizes NNI program activities for the last two fiscal years, as well as discuss plans for the upcoming fiscal year. The NNI includes this report as part of its annual Budget Supplement.

The NNI itself is not a funding program, only a coordination system. Rather, funding is provided through the NNI member agencies, e.g. NSF, DOD, etc. The NNI budget therefore represents the total of nanotechnology-related investments of each participating NNI agency. Each agency determines its budget for nanotechnology by coordinating with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and Congress.

The budget process begins each year upon Congress’s receipt of the President’s budget request. On February 12, 2018, President Trump submitted his 2019 Budget request to Congress, initiating the budget process for fiscal year (FY) 2019, which officially began October 1, 2018. The NNI document discussed herein serves as the NNI’s supplement to the President’s Budget for FY 2019. Notably, recently published legislation is seeking to reform the budget process including transitioning to biennial budget resolutions. Changes to the budget process would undoubtedly impact NNI member agencies.

In addition to its yearly Budget Supplements, the NNI produces several types of publications, including periodic Strategic Plans, workshop reports, brochures, and Environmental, Health, and Safety-Related (EHS) documents.

The Science

Science Synopsis

Nanotechnology involves the study of matter at the nanoscale, with dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers (nm). One nanometer is one billionth of a meter, and this extremely small size is the defining characteristic of a nanomaterial. A chemical substance is classified as a nanomaterial if it has at least one dimension that is between 1 and 100 nm. The nanoscale is extremely small—1 nm is equal to one billionth of a meter. As an example, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nm thick.

Because of their very small size, nanomaterials possess unique and dynamic properties that make them attractive for use in a variety of applications. In fact, nanomaterials are already used as additives in several consumer products, including clothing and cosmetics, and the use of nanomaterials in medicine allows for the development of targeted therapies. In computing and electronics, nanotechnology enables the creation of smaller and faster systems, and the use of nanomaterials in energy applications provides access to energy that is increasingly efficient and affordable.

Existing applications of nanotechnology are the result of past foundational and applied research, including research carried out at NNI member agencies. Investment in the NNI supports the continuation of research that builds on existing knowledge, improving understanding of nanotechnology and expanding its applications. Examples of ongoing projects under the NNI include chemical sensors for monitoring wound healing (DOD), devices that can detect forces generated by swimming bacteria (NSF), and advanced antennas for use in unmanned aerial vehicles (NASA).

It is common to hear the terms basic or foundational research pitted against applied research. The National Science Board (NSB) defines basic research as the pursuit of new knowledge of underlying foundations for phenomena, without a specific use in mind. In contrast, applied research describes the pursuit of new knowledge with the primary goal of achieving a specific practical aim or objective.


The Debate

Potential Impacts

Effective communication by the NNI regarding how Federal funds have been and will be used for nanotechnology research encourages future government support of nanotechnology R&D efforts. The finding that actual NNI investments are higher than requested or estimated levels raises the question of whether requests for NNI will increase in future years to support increased investments in “core” nanotechnology R&D programs.