Against a backdrop of intensifying global competition in the field of nanotechnology, the White House last week sent Congress its update of the strategic plan for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which was launched in 2000 to invest in nanoscience and commercialize real-world applications.

In introducing the new plan, Eric Lander, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted that the United States has long been the leader in nanotechnology, but maintaining that lead will require doubling down on the country’s innovation infrastructure by investing in further research and accelerating commercialization of new nanotech innovations.

Nanotechnology refers to controlling matter that is between 1 and 100 nanometers. At that scale, matter can have unique properties such as being able to better conduct heat or electricity, or be more chemically reactive. These properties make nanotechnology useful in a wide range of other scientific and technological applications and contexts, from artificial intelligence to quantum computers, smartphones, and COVID-19 vaccines. For example, Apple’s M1 Max chip, used in the upcoming MacBook Pro, uses 5-nanometer process technology.

Former OSTP Director John P. Holdren said in the 2016 plan that “nanotechnology is poised to significantly improve how we diagnose and treat disease,” a prediction that has rung true in the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 report notes that nanotechnology has been instrumental in developing COVID vaccines, as well as in diagnostic tools and protective equipment for medical personnel.

“The role of nanotechnology in our response to the pandemic—from vaccine delivery to protective clothing to testing kits—emphasizes the potential for small science to have big impacts,” said Lisa E. Friedersdorf, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO).

The new strategic plan is the first update since 2016. It spells out five broad goals—ensuring the United States remains a leader in nanotech R&D, promoting commercialization, providing the requisite infrastructure to support the research pipeline, expanding the nanotech workforce, and ensuring the technology is developed responsibly—with a series of specific objectives in each area.

Among the new initiatives in the strategic plan, the administration is introducing National Nanotechnology Challenges to mobilize the nanotechnology research community to address global challenges. The plan also calls for expanding the Nanotechnology Entrepreneurship Network as a forum to connect innovators and share best practices and building out cyber infrastructure that is critical for nanotechnologies enhanced by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced design tools.