I was really struck by a headline that has been circulating around nanotech websites since yesterday: “Nanotechnology Needs Big Facilities".I was taken aback by the notion that what nanotechnology’s development has lacked over the last 10 years of large government investment is the building of large new facilities. From my perspective, it has been almost exclusively the construction industries around the world that have gained the most from all this government largesse. A nice twist of irony to go along with my incredulity is that these sentiments were delivered in Barcelona, Spain at the first International Congress on Nanotechnology and Research Infrastructures.
Spain as the setting for this proclamation strikes me as ironic since Spain is in the midst of a economic crisis that has been in part created by construction companies building housing that no one could buy or occupy: speculative construction without an underlying economy to support the result. This strikes me as not being too different than International Iberian Nanotech Laboratory located in Braga, Portugal that is a joint facility shared by Spain and Portugal.
In that case, you have two countries that a year before the construction of this 30-million-Euros facility ranked at the absolute bottom of per capita spending on nanotech, according to a report from the European Commission entitled “Towards a European Strategy for Nanotechnology”. With its 4 cents per person spent on Nanotech, Spain invested 1.6 million Euros in nanotech in 2004. The following year they announced that they were going to be investing 15 million Euros in a facility. After nearly starving research and researchers of basic funding that would pay salaries or get needed lab equipment, the government decides to increase funding by nearly 10 times the level of the year before. But for what? A new building? I supposed it’s easier for all parties involved to turn to their shiny new building as a product of tax dollars rather than inconclusive work in advanced materials to create better batteries, for instance. But in fairness, the headlines in their efforts to play on the words “nanotechnology” and “big” (I want to add this phenomenon to Bill Maher’s list of “New Rules”: No more puns on nanotechnology and size) managed to miss the message which is not “bigger” facilities but “sharing” the facilities that already exist more efficiently. According to Carlo Rizzuto, head of Italy’s Elettra synchrotron and chair of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), the aim should be integrating all the existing facilities in a network, allowing scientists from different fields of biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and others to work together.
But this idea of sharing, which is so critical to the advancement of science, is almost anathema to nationalistic aims that fuels so much government nanotech funding. So all of these huge government investments that are supposed to put one country or region ahead of all the others is almost diametrically opposed to the sharing of these facilities. The rub will be that the nanotechnology advancements that these various governments are seeking will not come about through this race to put your region ahead of all the others but sharing your facilities with all the others.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.