The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network is, as their page says, "an integrated networked partnership of user facilities, supported by the National Science Foundation, serving the needs of nanoscale science, engineering and technology". Basically, the NNIN has been a mechanism for establishing nodes of excellence at sites around the US, where people could travel to use equipment and capabilities (high resolution transmission electron microscopy; sophisticated wafer-scale electron beam lithography; deep etching) that they lack at their home institutions. Crucially, these shared facilities are supported by skilled technical staff that can train users, work with users to develop processes, perform fee-for-service work on occasion, etc. The most famous sites are the Stanford Nanofab Facility and the Cornell Nanofab. Over the years, the NNIN has been instrumental in an enormous amount of research progress. Note that this effort is distinct from Major User Facilities (such as synchrotrons, neutron sources, etc).
This year, there was a competition for a Next Generation NNIN - the call is here. The idea was very much to broaden the network into characterization as well as fabrication, and to reach new, growing communities of users in areas like bio, the environment, earth sciences/geo. After a proposal process that boiled down to two teams (one with 18 universities; one with 20), very extensive full proposals, reverse site visits, written responses to reverse site visits and reviews, etc., the NSF decided not to make an award. It would appear that there will be another call of some kind issued in fall, 2014. For now, what this means is that the NNIN is ending. Cornell, Stanford, and the other sites face major cuts in funding for staff and support for external users. (Full disclosure: I was the Rice rep on one of the teams.)
This whole issue is very complex, but it raises a number of questions that would benefit from a discussion in the community. What should be the pathway to federal support for shared facilities and staffing, particularly tools and techniques that would be prohibitively expensive for individual universities to support via internal funds? Should there be federal support for this? Should it come from NSF? How can we have a stable, sustained level of research infrastructure, including staffing, that serves the broad scientific community, in an era when funding is squeezed ever more tightly? If the burden is shifting more toward individual universities having to support shared infrastructure basically with internal funding and user fees, what impact will that have? Comment is invited.
UPDATE: Here is a story that Science is running regarding the decision, or lack thereof.