More Nano or Beyond Nano

I spent a chunk of last week on one of my committee chairing jobs wrestling with both sides of a rather tricky issue. On the first day I was chairing a committee attempting to make sense of the recommendations of independent experts on what projects should be funded and in what priority. In six years and €70 million I don’t think we have had a single meeting where the initial and final rankings have been the same. Given the length of the proposal writing process, the farming out to expert reviewers and the collation of the results, I’m always amazed that in one day we can extract enough detail from the screeds of information to be able to apportion our budget in the most effective manner.

But every year we manage it, and after all these years I’m happy to say that we have a committee with enough experience and sharp enough minds to be able to cut through the usual claims and distinguish between good science and mediocre.

The second day involved a trickier problem, and one that we will be seeing a lot more of in the coming years. After seven years of nanotechnology programs, should we continue to fund nanotechnology as a separate entity, or should we try to fold it into a more applied area? In this case the proposed future home was ‘production methods.’

It’s a hard one to resolve. On on hand nanoscience needs to be continued, and will be continued. Chemists didn’t just decide to give up chemistry once they had discovered the Haber-Bosch process and decide to become psychologists instead, and physics didn’t come to a halt with the discovery of nuclear fission. But there is a growing feeling in governments around the world that with limited resources, perhaps there needs to be a bit less science and a bit more technology.

I instinctively like the idea of ‘production methods’ as it does find a nice home for a number of emerging technologies, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, industrial biology and probably a few more niche -ologies. However I am always keen to make the distinction between old and new production methods. There seems to be growing evidence that we are approaching a point where we can change the way we produce things, whether materials, drugs or food, and the key difference is between top down (old) and bottom up (new). What makes me even more comfortable with this approach is that it nudges nanotechnologies a little closer to the life sciences, which, as we make a transition from cold hard crystalline top down technologies to warm wet flexible bottom up production methods is exactly where nanotechnology needs to be.

So really we need more nano, and to look beyond nano to its interface with other technologies and their applications.

That’s easy for me to say, but much harder to wrestle into the strictures of a government funding program cutting across several ministries, and totally impossible for a venture capitalist to understand. We made some progress, but I suspect there will be many more meetings along similar lines before a workable solution is found.

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