The burgeoning research fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology are commonly
thought to be highly multidisciplinary because they draw on many areas of science
and technology to make important advances.
Research reported in the September issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology
finds that nanoscience and nanotechnology indeed are highly multidisciplinary
– but not much more so than other modern disciplines such as medicine
or electrical engineering that also draw on multiple areas of science and technology.
With $1.6 billion scheduled to be invested in nano-related research during
2010, assessing the multidisciplinary nature of the field could be important
to policy-makers, research managers, technology-transfer officers and others
responsible for managing the investment and creating a supportive environment
"Research in nanoscience and nanotechnology is not just a collection of
isolated 'stove pipes' drawing knowledge from one narrow discipline, but rather
is quite interdisciplinary," said Alan Porter, co-author of the paper and
a professor emeritus in the Schools of Industrial and Systems Engineering and
Public Policy at the Georgia
Institute of Technology. "We found that research in any one category
of nanoscience and nanotechnology tends to cite research in many other categories."
The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation through the Center
for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University.
Porter and collaborator Jan Youtie, manager of policy services in Georgia Tech's
Enterprise Innovation Institute, analyzed abstracts from more than 30,000 papers
with "nano" themes that were published between January and July of
2008. They found that although materials science and chemistry dominated the
papers, fields as diverse as clinical medicine, biomedical sciences and physics
These "nanopapers" studied by the researchers appeared in more than
6,000 journals that were part of a database known as the Science Citation Index
(SCI). The researchers found nanopapers in 151 of SCI's 175 subject categories,
with 52 of the categories containing more than 100 such papers.
To explore how well knowledge was integrated across the disciplines, the researchers
also studied the journal articles that were cited in the nanopapers. They found
more than one million cited references, a mean of 33 per paper.
Using text mining techniques to extract sources from the cited references,
they further found that 45 subject categories were cited by five percent or
more of the nanopapers – and 98 categories that were cited by at least
one percent of the papers. The text mining was done using VantagePoint software
developed by Georgia Tech and Search Technology Inc.
Six subject categories dominated both the original nanopapers and the cited
references. Each of the six contained 10 percent or more of the original nanopapers
and was cited by 39 percent or more of the references. They are:
- Materials science, multidisciplinary
- Physics, applied
- Chemistry, physical
- Physics, condensed matter
- Nanoscience and nanotechnology
- Chemistry, multidisciplinary
The researchers found considerable interdisciplinary representation within
those six categories. Though 86 percent of the 3,863 nanopapers in the "nanoscience
and nanotechnology" category cited papers in materials science, another
80 subject categories had 40 or more cited papers each.
This representation continued even outside the top six categories. The 808
nanopapers in electrical engineering cited papers in journals from 138 different
subject categories, while the 435 nanopapers in organic chemistry cited papers
in journals from 140 different subject categories.
The researchers also used a metric they called an "integration score"
to gauge how interdisciplinary nature of a particular paper or set of papers.
The integration score ranged from zero for stand-alone disciplines that don't
cite work from other disciplines to one for highly-integrated disciplines that
heavily cite work from other areas.
Integration scores ranged from 0.65 for nanoscience and nanotechnology to 0.60
for electrical engineering and 0.64 for organic chemistry.
"Our results show the multidisciplinary nature of research in nanoscience
and nanotechnology, although the integration scores make it clear that much
non-nano research is also comparably interdisciplinary," Porter said. "Much
of the nanoresearch is also concentrated in 'macrodisciplines' such as materials
science and chemistry, and researchers tend to cite work from neighboring fields
more often than work in more distant fields."
Understanding the interdisciplinary nature of nanoscience and nanotechnology
could be important to creating the right environment for the field to produce
"There is a broad perspective that most scientific breakthroughs occur
at the interstices among more established fields," said Youtie. "Nanotechnology
R&D is believed to be an area where disciplines converge. If nanotechnology
does have a strong multidisciplinary character, attention to communication across
disciplines will be an important feature in its emergence."
In the future, Porter and Youtie hope to explore other policy-focused nano
- How research and development patterns can forecast likely commercial innovations;
- The societal implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology innovations
so that potential negative efforts can be mitigated before they occur;
- How corporations develop their strategies for nanoscience and nanotechnology,
- Where nanoscience and hotspots for research and development – called
"nanodistricts" – exist around the world.
"A nanodistrict is a regional concentration of research institutions and
firms where nanotechnologies are developed," Youtie explained. "Although
nanotechnology applications are deployed widely across the world, a smaller
number of nanodistrict locations are appearing where nanotechnology research,
development and initial commercialization are clustered."