The European Commission today adopted an EU strategy to help Europe to become world leader in the rapidly developing field of nanotechnology the science of the infinitely small. Nanotech applications include atom-scale "nano-robots" that can be injected in the human body to cure diseases, electronic "nano-chips" that can store and process much more information than today's microchips, "nano-fibres" for better and always-clean clothes, and "nano-materials" for high-performance coatings, for instance in aircraft and spaceships. The Communication, "Towards a European strategy for nanotechnology", provides a series of recommendations and initiatives on how to strengthen European Research and Development (R&D) in the field. It proposes an integrated approach to strengthen Europe's R&D in nanosciences and help turn nanotechnologies into commercially viable products for the benefit of society. Key actions required to achieve these aims include boosting R&D investment and infrastructure, improving training for research personnel, enhancing technology transfer in Europe and its financing, taking into account the impact of nanotechnology on society and increasing international co-operation towards a responsible approach to nanotechnology R&D globally.
"Nanotechnology is fast becoming one of the most promising and rapidly expanding fields of R&D. To make the most of European excellence in nanosciences, research must be translated into commercially viable products and processes," said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "In order to provide new impetus towards the knowledge-based objectives in the Lisbon process and turn the EU into the most dynamic powerhouse on the world stage, Europe must increase its collective efforts and investment in this field. It is crucial that we help to create a favourable environment for innovation in the nanotechnology sector, particularly in reference to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Strong public-private partnerships in this emerging technology are also needed. At the same time, we have to ensure nanotech applications are developed in a responsible and transparent way."
Nanotechnology worth billions of Euros
Nanosciences and nanotechnology research aims to control the fundamental structure and behaviour of matter at the level of atoms and molecules so as to improve the performance and added value of existing products and processes. The market for such products and processes is estimated to be around €2.5 billion today worldwide. However, analysts predict it could be worth hundreds of billions of Euros by 2010, later exceeding €1 trillion.
Examples of nanotechnology-based products already on the market include new computer displays, scratch-free paints, surfaces with specific functions, creams and medical products such as heart valves. These products, however, represent only the tip of the iceberg and nanotechnology research is expected to have an impact upon virtually all technological sectors in the coming years and lead to new developments, in particular, in healthcare, information technologies, energy production and storage, new materials, manufacturing, and environmental research.
Boosting R&D investment in nanotech to compete internationally
Europe has invested early in nanosciences and nanotechnologies R&D and has made valuable progress over the last years. However, without constant and increasing investment in R&D and co-ordination at European level, it appears unlikely that the EU can remain internationally competitive. The EU has an excellent knowledge base, sharing 32% of international nanotechnology publications in 1997-1999, compared to 24% in the USA and 12% in Japan. But Europe is now investing proportionately less than its main competitors: both the USA and Japan invest more per capita in nanotechnology and this gap is expected to widen in the next few years if Europe does not take appropriate initiatives. Europe should also capitalise upon its knowledge by transforming R&D into actual applications and products, and thus into wealth and employment.
Today's Communication aims to help bridge this gap and help make Europe the most dynamic knowledge-based region in the world in line with the 2000 Lisbon objective. It recommends that overall public EU investment in nanotechnology R&D should triple by 2010 to maintain and strengthen its position in respect to its main competitors. The EU 6th Research Framework Programme (2002-2006) devotes €1.3 billion to nanotechnology and new materials, and the Commission aims to step up this effort in the broader context of the proposed doubling of EU research budget in the 2007-2013 period. The Communication also proposes a number of other measures as part of an integrated strategy.
An integrated European approach to nanotechnology
One of the crucial differences between the EU and our main competitors is that the latter have co-ordinated or centralised nanotechnology R&D programmes. Correspondently, it is important to improve the co-ordination of national research programmes in Europe, to help maintain European excellence in nanosciences.
It is also crucial that transnational collaborations between R&D organisations in the public and private sectors are created so as to ensure that a critical mass is achieved in nanotechnologies. This sector is still young and research in this field can be extremely expensive. Moreover, many applications still need basic research before approaching the market, so competing enterprises can co-operate in this research. That is why all players, both public and private, should join forces. In this respect, EU-funded research projects already encourage Europe-wide partnerships and networking, but the financial support provided by the EU Framework Programmes needs to be reinforced to ensure that Europe can make the most effective use of its scattered resources.
The Communication also calls on Member States to develop a world-class competitive R&D infrastructure in Europe through "poles of excellence"; promoting interdisciplinary education and training for research personnel with a strong emphasis on an entrepreneurial mindset; ensuring favourable conditions for technology transfer and industrial innovation, including appropriate financial mechanisms and the development of common standards. These are all key factors to ensure that research excellence can be translated into wealth-generating products and processes.
The Communication also highlights the need to identify and address safety, health and environmental concerns associated with nanotechnologies and to promote risk assessment procedures at all stages of the technology's life cycle. Such issues could also be addressed at international-level to ensure that nanotechnology is developed in a safe and responsible manner world-wide, to the benefit of all citizens.