Crystal clear? Researchers are uncertain about the National Science Foundation’s intentions to extend a network dedicated to nanoscience and technology, such as efforts to grow nanocrystals like these.

Crystal clear? Researchers are uncertain about the National Science Foundation's intentions to extend a network dedicated to nanoscience and technology, such as efforts to grow nanocrystals like these.

Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory

Scientists Puzzled by NSF's Mixed Signals on Nano Network

As an academic researcher, Roger Howe knows what it’s like to lose out to a worthy competitor in the never-ending scramble for federal funding. But as director of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) at Stanford University in California, Howe is scratching his head over what he and others say is a recent nondecision by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support what was to be the agency’s next big step in providing support for the burgeoning field.

However, NSF says it’s all a big misunderstanding and that it remains foursquare behind such collaborations.

NSF began funding NNIN in 2003 under a 10-year cooperative agreement, and this year NNIN is winding down its efforts to coordinate nanotech user facilities at 14 sites around the country. So in December 2012 NSF put out a solicitation describing its plans for a “next-generation” NNIN (NG-NNIN) that would broaden the collaboration to encompass researchers and educators in related fields.

The competition came down to Howe and a rival proposal from a team led by James Sturm of Princeton University. After pitching their visions last summer to a 12-member panel of outside experts assembled by NSF, each team went home and awaited word on who would claim the prize, expected to be $16 million a year for the next decade.

But last week both teams got an unexpected answer. Instead of picking a winner, NSF declared what Howe describes as a “no win outcome to the competition.” The network announced the decision on its website last week, and Howe says he’s not sure what will happen after NNIN exhausts its funding. “Needless to say, I feel that NSF’s decision will have a significant negative impact on nano-related research and development.” Adds Sturm: “We are both at a loss to explain what happened.”

The answer is simple, according to NSF officials. “We have not made a formal decision, so asking that question is premature at this time,” says Pramod Khargonekar, head of NSF’s engineering directorate, which provides most of the funding for the network.

Khargonekar emphasizes that NSF has not altered its plans to support such a network. “NSF and the engineering directorate are committed to infrastructure support to enable transformative research in nanoscience and nanotechnology,” he tells ScienceInsider. “We think it’s important, and we will continue to provide support for it.” As evidence, he cites the $15.5 million for NG-NNIN in NSF’s 2015 budget request, as well as the identical amount in the NSF budget for the current fiscal year that ends on 30 September.

Khargonekar was less clear, however, about when that support will materialize. “We will make an announcement as we move forward,” he says. “We have something we intend to do, but since our thinking is not mature, it would be premature to talk about it now.”

Some of the community’s concerns stem from the fact that NSF’s contribution to the multiagency National Nanotechnology Initiative is shrinking. Its funding dropped from $466 million in 2012 to $410 million in the current year, and NSF’s 2015 request maintains that level of support. Asked why, acting Director Cora Marrett said at a budget briefing yesterday that the “seeds” NSF has planted have grown to the point where nanotechnology is now a “mature” plant that has taken root.

“With some of these initiatives, you try to create networks to pull communities together. And if you have succeeded in doing that, you don’t always need to continue with it as a special activity,” she explained. “So yes, it’s a high priority. But it’s now pervasive enough to have been integrated into the core of what we do.”

*Correction, 14 March, 4:36 p.m.: The link to NNIN's website has been corrected.