Nanotech Employment Numbers Remain Inscrutable

We all have our favored journalists for particular subjects. For me I have been a long-time follower of Ann M. Thayer over at Chemical & Engineering News when it comes to nanotechnology reporting. I suppose in-depth, balanced reporting doesn’t get as trumpeted as much as scandal that is largely manufactured in the mind of the reporter but I sure do feel better informed after reading it.

Most recently Thayer has taken on the subject of just how big an impact nanotechnology is having on our economy and its effect on bolstering employment and I would have to say the results are mixed.

On the one hand, you have the ever-optimistic viewpoint of Mihail C. Roco, a senior adviser for nanotechnology at NSF, who helped develop the numbers back in 2000 that estimated that by 2015 2 million workers worldwide, and 800,000 in the US, would be needed to support nanotechnology manufacturing. According to Roco, we’re still on target with estimates that in 2008 there were 160,000 workers in nanotechnology, representing a 25% increase between 2000 and 2008. If that same percentage increase is applied to the years from 2008 to 2015, then you would get 800,000 by 2015 in Roco’s estimates.

As satisfying as it may be to be dead-on accurate with one’s projections, one cannot help be reminded of Upton Sinclair’s quote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” If you are given the task of predicting the unpredictable you have to stick to the methodology even when it hardly makes sense.

I have to give credit to Thayer for really pushing Roco for what that methodology actually is since no one seemed to know before how the $1 trillion by 2015 was arrived at. This is what we get:

“To measure jobs, Roco uses a definition that covers nanoscale science, engineering, and technology and tallies workers in two ways. One is by assessing penetration, primarily the use of nanomaterials, into production and then estimating the number of workers who handle something “nano.” Another is by counting employment in new areas that he considers nanotech, such as advanced flat-panel displays, nanophotonics, and molecular medicine.”

They call economics the dismal science and I suppose nothing could be more dismal, or disappointing, than seeing how estimates are actually arrived at for employment numbers. So guys at the flat-panel display factory are nanotech workers? Geez.

I understand why these kinds of estimates are needed and one tries to do the best one can in terms of accuracy under hopeless circumstances but what can we really interpret from these figures, setting aside whether they are accurate or not?

It is probably better that we come to the conclusion of Tim Harper in the article: “Many people presupposed that nanotech was going to be an industry that can be defined, but it’s nearly impossible to second-guess the path an emerging technology will take.” This is true, unless, of course, someone is paying you to second-guess the path of an emerging technology in which case come up with a number and stick to it.

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

 
Editor
Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
 
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Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
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