European Union: Towards a European Strategy for Nanotechnology

Last Updated: 1 December 2004
Article by Roland Stein and Debra Hueting

Originally published October 2004

INTRODUCTION

Europe has set itself the goal of becoming the leading knowledge-based economy within this decade. One of the means to achieve this aim is a concerted investment in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology refers to understanding and mastering the properties of matter at the nano-scale: one nano-meter (one billionth of meter) is tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair. Nanoscience is often referred to as "horizontal", "key" or "enabling" since it can pervade virtually all technological sectors. It often brings together different areas of science and benefits from an interdisciplinary approach and is expected to lead to innovations that can contribute towards addressing many of the problems facing today's society.

THE COMMUNICATION

The European Commission is investing considerable effort in promoting an integrated approach to R&D in nanosciences. The latest step is the issuing of a communication "Towards a European Strategy for Nanotechnology" of 12 May 20041 ("the communication"). With this communication the Commission proposes a set of synergetic actions to maintain and strengthen research and development in nanosciences and nanotechnologies in the European Research Area. Five "dynamics" are identified by the Commission: research and development ("R&D"), infrastructure, education and training, innovation and the societal dimension.

R&D

According to the Commission, excellence in R&D is essential to ensure that Europe can remain competitive in the long-term. At the same time, the Commission asserts that knowledge generated via R&D must be translated through nanotechnologies into innovative products and processes that can improve the competitiveness of European industry. Therefore, the Commission wants to increase investment in knowledge both at national and European level. At a European level, the Commission introduced two new instruments, namely the Integrated Projects ("IP") and Networks of Excellence ("NE").2 It also introduced European Technology Platforms that aim to bring together all interested stakeholders to develop a long-term shared vision, create roadmaps, secure long-term financing and realise a coherent approach to governance. The Commission believes that national and regional programmes should be co-ordinated in a way that effort is consolidated and focussed so as to ensure a critical mass and greater impact within the European Research Area on the three key synergetic axes: research, infrastructure and education. In the R&D area, the Commission intends to assist in the preparation of roadmaps in market sectors that have reached sufficient maturity. In addition, it is creating an independent EU highlevel expert group "Foresighting the new technology wave: Converging nano-, bio- and info-technologies and their social and competitive impact on Europe".

Infrastructure

To accelerate the development of nanotechnologies, the Commission considers the investment in a wide range of advanced facilities, instruments and equipments to be essential. The investments should be shared between organisations at local, regional, national and private level. In this context, financial synergy needs to be explored with the European Investment Bank, European Investment Fund and Structural Funds. The infrastructure should be construed such as to better meet the requirements of industry. Solutions such as "open laboratories" with easy access for industry, in particular SMEs, are greatly needed. World-class infrastructure should also be created at European level ("poles of excellence"). These could provide access to cuttingedge equipment, encompass all aspects of interdisciplinary R&D, education and prototyping, as well as encompassing public-private partnerships and serve as an incubator for new start-ups and spin-offs. To achieve the necessary critical mass, the Commission intends to concentrate the resources in a limited number of infrastructures, such as nanoelectronics, nano-biotechnology and nano-materials.

Education and training

The third dynamic aims at a population of interdisciplinary researchers and engineers who can generate knowledge and ensure that it is transferred to industry, properly trained toxicologists and risk assessors in order to assess and manage the human health risks of nanotechnology. To achieve this, the Commission wants researchers to be attracted and retained in Europe, including maximising the underexploited potential of women. To attract youth to nanotechnology, the younger generation should be encouraged to engage in discussions about science from an early age, including a teaching at pre-college level that helps students to make informed choices. The universities could, in order to emphasize the necessary interdisciplinary approach, envisage undergraduate courses in which students continue to receive basic training in a range of disciplines regardless of the specific degree course that is being taken. This should ensure that future generations of nanotechnologists are "open-minded specialists" able to interact with their counterparts in other disciplines. Regarding the content of the courses, new forms of training, moving beyond the traditional disciplinary boundaries, should be envisaged for nanotechnology. The aim being to provide worldclass targeted interdisciplinary teaching at both university and postgraduate level. From a European perspective, the Commission calls for the creation of a "European award in nanotechnology".

Industrial innovation

The Commission is convinced that the ability to unlock the potential of knowledge via nanotechnology is crucial for giving new impetus to industries that are no longer competitive due to strong international competition, as well as cultivating new European knowledge-based industries. Certain factors should therefore be influenced. First, the creation and enhancement of an entrepreneurial risk-taking culture should be promoted. Secondly, the founding of new and innovative enterprises should be encouraged, mainly by lowering the thresholds for the offering of risk capital. Thirdly, a European, and ideally international, agreement should be reached upon concepts and definitions on patents, so as to maintain the confidence of investors and avoid distortions that may arise through different local treatment, or interpretation of intellectual property rights. Fourthly, a harmonised regulation should ensure consistency, avoid market distortion, minimise risk and ensure health and environmental protection. Lastly, reliable and quantitative means of characterisation, metrology and standards as well as measurement techniques need to be instituted.

Societal dimension

The last dynamic refers to the societal dimension. The Commission considers that, while the potential applications of nanotechnology can improve our quality of life, there may be some risk associated with it. This relationship should be openly acknowledged and investigated. At the same time the public's perception of nanotechnology and its risks should be properly assessed and addressed. The Commission therefore supports an open and proactive approach to governance in nanotechnology R&D to ensure public awareness and confidence. To increase the knowledge about nanotechnology, it is necessary to provide information about present-day nanotechnology research and its possible applications. The Commission understands that an effective two-way dialogue is indispensable, whereby the general public's views are taken into account and may be seen to influence decisions concerning R&D policy. In addition, the Commission reaffirms its commitment to ethical principles in order to ensure that R&D in nanotechnology is carried out in a responsible and transparent manner. The main basic ethical values to be considered are the principles of respect for dignity, individual autonomy, justice and beneficence, freedom of research and proportionality.

Other issues

Besides these special dynamics, the Commission also considers nanotechnology in other, broader fields. One of these is the promotion of a high level of public health, safety and environmental and consumer protection. In this context, the Commission highlights the need to identify and address real and perceived safety concerns at the earliest possible stage. The Commission considers it to be necessary to adjust the risk assessment procedures, so that they take account of the particular issues associated with nanotechnology applications. The Commission also stresses the importance of integrating the assessment of risk to human health, environment, consumers and workers at all stages of the cycle of the technology.

Another concern of importance for the Commission is the international co-operation on nanotechnology. To further this co-operation, the Commission will promote international debate or consensus on issues that are of global concern, such as public health, safety, the environment, consumer protection, risk assessment, regulatory approaches, metrology, nomenclature and norms. Additionally, international co-operation in nanosciences and nanotechnologies is, according to the Commission, needed both with countries that are more economically advanced, to share knowledge and profit from critical mass, and less economically advanced, to secure access to knowledge and avoid any "knowledge apartheid". Moreover, the Commission intends to embody common shared principles for R&D in nanotechnology in a voluntary framework (for example, a "code of good conduct") to bring the EU together with countries that are active in nanotechnology research and share the commitment to its responsible development.

PUBLIC DEBATE OF COUNCIL

On 24 September 2004 the Council of Ministers held a public debate on the future of nanotechnology in Europe. The members of the Council welcomed the communication3. The majority of the Member States stressed the actual and future importance of nanotechnology as well as the fundamental role of the European Union in the area. Some Member States proposed further actions to be taken. Two of the new Member States, Poland and the Czech Republic, suggested the establishment of a European Centre for Nanotechnology, comparable to the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative. More reluctant Member States recommended an enhanced co-operation and co-ordination of future efforts by the European Union.

Member States also argued for a concentration of funds and efforts on specific areas. However, the sectors to be focussed upon varied according to the Member State. For example, Finland favoured energy, Poland materials and medical use, Greece infra-structure, IT and the marine sector, and Italy electronics, photo tonic systems, energy and biology. Another issue of great concern to the Member States was the lack of integration of technologies into new products.

Other topics discussed upon included the importance of the dissemination of information to all stakeholders, (including enterprises, scientists and the general population), the inclusion of the precautionary principle in certain areas of nanotechnology, the need to further the dialogue with China and other international actors and the need for a proper funding of start-ups and other SMEs.

NEXT STEPS

The Commission, with the approval of the Council, is going to draw up an Action Plan for nanotechnology during the first quarter of 2005, after having launched a wide-ranging stakeholder debate. The Commission is inviting everybody to provide comments via email (rtd-nanostrategy@ cec.eu.int). It also intends to engage in a dialogue at international level, with a view to establishing a framework of shared principles for the safe, sustainable, responsible and socially acceptable development and use of nanotechnologies.

Footnotes

1. COM(2004) 338 final.

2. The IP is an instrument to support objective-driven research, where the primary deliverable is new knowledge. A NE is an instrument for strengthening excellence by tackling the fragmentation of European research, where the main deliverable is a durable structuring and shaping of the way that research is carried out on the topic of the network. Cf. http://www.cordis.lu/fp6/instruments.htm.

3. Press Release of the Council Nr. 12487/04.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Authors
Roland Stein
 
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