Careers in Nanobiotechnology: It Takes a lot of Money to Make Little Things!


This article was originally posted in the February 2001 GrantsNet News as the Profile of the Month.

Specialized equipment for manipulating nanometer-sized molecules can be extremely expensive. So, to manipulate things on the nanometer scale, you'd better have either a very rich uncle or a lot of grant support!

Well, you can't choose your relatives but you can choose where to apply for grant money!

Funding for nanotechnology in general received a huge boost in January 2000 when President Clinton announced a nearly $500 million National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Of the federal agencies dispersing grants through the NNI, four fund nanobiotechnology projects: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Defense (DoD). Below, we'll take a look at the programs funded by each of these agencies, concluding with a synopsis of the mechanisms that they are establishing to ensure that the U.S. sees a return on its Federal nanobio investments.


The NSF has received the largest piece of the NNI pie for FY2001 - $150 million. Mihail Roco heads up the initiative and is also Senior Advisor for Nanotechnology at NSF. Although no specific NSF program solicitations for nanobiotechnology are currently open, Roco says that nanobiotechnology proposals will be accepted anytime by appropriate NSF directorates. Within the Directorate for Biological Sciences, apply to either the Division of Biological Infrastructure or the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences; within the Directorate for Engineering, apply to the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Systems; and within the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, apply to the Division of Materials Research.

If the recent past is any indication of things to come, the funding future for nanobiotechnology looks bright at the NSF. Researchers are currently receiving funds for previous solicitations entitled, "Partnership in Nanotechnology: Synthesis, Processing, and Utilization of Functional Nanostructures" and "Exploratory Research on Biosystems at the Nanoscale." And those who applied in January 2001 for "Nanoscale Science and Engineering" will find out in April if they will be supported. On the future of NSF's nanobiotechnology funding, Roco hinted, "I estimate this activity will continue [for] the next five years."


Locating all the NIH program announcements for nanobiotechnology projects would be a daunting task indeed were it not for the notice posted on 20 January 2000. Entitled Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Grant Applications, this notice contains a listing of programs that will accept nanobio proposals. Jeffery Schloss, Program Director, Technology Development Coordination at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), says this notice was posted "to alert the community" to specific programs relevant to nanotechnology. In addition to funding the research, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates may be supported by their PI's NIH nanobiotech grant, if included in the budget.

Due to the time needed to review proposals and the newness of the nanotech announcements, Schloss says it is too early to know just how much money will go toward funding nanotech or nanobiotech in particular this fiscal year. Also, like NSF, nanobio proposals do not have to be submitted to the NIH in response to a specific program announcement, so it is difficult to estimate the amounts of money independently given out by the various institutes.

What does Schloss see in his crystal ball for the future of nanobiotech funding from the NIH? With a new US administration and recently signed legislation creating a National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at NIH, things are in "flux." Schloss notes that although it is too early to determine what role the new Institute will play in NIH nanotech funding, "we're going ahead [within the current mechanisms] with pretty considerable enthusiasm."


The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and NASA have teamed up to offer, for the first time, a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for Fundamental Technologies for Development of Biomolecular Sensors. Nanobio proposals that fit within the goals of the program - developing minimally invasive sensors that will help physicians identify disease very early on - will be considered. And according to NCI Contracting Officer Richard Hartmann, a second BAA may be issued in the future, although no firm decision has been made yet. Get your word processor ready - proposals are due 30 April 2001! NCI and NASA expect to give out 20-28 grants for a maximum of three years at about $500,000 each.


The competition for this program is over for this year, but the DoD specifically solicited nanobiotechnology, nanoelectronics, and nanomaterials proposals in their FY 2001 Defense University Research Initiative on NanoTechnology (DURINT). DURINT was part of MURI - the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative - which, each year, calls for proposals from universities in various topics that are important to the DoD. Clifford Lau, Associate Director for the Corporate Programs Division of the Office of Naval Research, says the DoD does not know whether there will be another DURINT program for FY2002, but there will be nanotech topics within the larger MURI program. So keep your eyes open for the next MURI announcement!

Getting a Return on the Investment

Many of the government agencies granting funds for nanobiotechnology are well aware of the potential commercial applications of the supported projects. In fact, a common theme among the program solicitations issued by these agencies is the application and commercialization of the fruits of nanobio research. Both the NIH and NSF have announced Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs to help support work being done in small business settings. And NIH and NSF encourage businesses applying for these awards to collaborate with nonprofit research organizations. To further promote collaboration between industry and academia as well as the next step of commercializing the end result of NSF-funded research, NSF held a "Partnership in Nanotechnology" workshop on 29 and 30 January 2001 which brought together awardees of two NSF nanotech programs with industry representatives. (Information about topics discussed at the meeting can be found at Furthermore, both businesses and universities are invited to respond to the NCI/NASA BAA. And the DOD considers applicants' plans for commercializing their nanotechnology part of the normal review process.

So, will nanotechnology lead the "Next Industrial Revolution" as is proclaimed on the NNI Web site? That remains to be seen, but half a billion federal dollars can't hurt!

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