Measuring the Economic Impact of Nanotechnologies

The triennial review of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative has just been released, and by and large it is positive. There is something in it for everyone, with the committee recommending more funding for heath and safety studies and not saying too much that would please the Drexlerites although Christine Peterson at Foresight puts a brave face on the conclusions.

Of more interest to us was the section on economic impact, and the conclusion below.

Conclusion. Currently, it is too early to gauge the economic impact of nanotechnology, which is still in very early stages of discovery and development. Moreover, any future analysis of economic impact will be hindered unless data are collected and metrics developed that will facilitate a rigorous economic analysis of economic indicators such as jobs created or individuals employed as a result of nanotechnology development. As both an enabling and a disruptive technology, nanotechnology will have effects that extend beyond one specific industry or market sector and will also be pervasive in multiple applications, a circumstance that will present additional challenges to rigorous assessment of the technology’s economic impact.

This highlights the danger of considering nanotechnology in isolation. There are many different flavours of nanotechnologies, at varying stages of maturity, and very few of these will make it to products that will be considered part of a nanotechnology sector of industry. Technologies tend to be buffeted by fashion, fear, funding opportunities and serendipity, so tracking the economic impact of the synthesis for example is almost as difficult as quantifying the economic impact of Maxwell’s equations, which could be considered as one of the key enablers for most of twentieth century technologies.

The committee makes a stab at suggesting a solution to give a broad indication of the economic impact, tracking for example “trends in nanotechnology-related intellectual property and other research outputs such as publications; the training of scientists, engineers, and technicians in nanoscience and nanotechnology; and technology transfer trends.”

This is fair enough, but it does illustrate how many of the grand claims about nanotechnologies such as the infamous trillion dollar market are easy to make, but hard to disprove.

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