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An emerging research field of huge potential, nanotechnology is by nature multi-disciplinary. But how well is European science equipped to straddle traditional boundaries?

Ask ten scientists to define nanotechnology, and you get ten different answers. It involves control of materials at scales from the atomic (0.1nm) up to 100nm, encompassing both ultra-miniaturisation and molecular manufacturing. Its potential contribution to commercial technologies - from microelectronics to healthcare - is revolutionary. But industry is only now starting to invest in the basic research which is still needed to realise this promise.

In the past decade, new physical and theoretical tools have enabled physicists, chemists, and biologists to arrive, from different directions, at the same point - a point one millionth of a millimetre wide. Each is starting to handle individual molecules, and exploit their properties. The opportunities for sharing skills and methods, and for joint research, seem endless.

But new networks are slow to form. Differences of professional language and rigidities within academic and funding institutions present particular barriers to cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Effective research networks evolve as 'bottom up' initiatives, but the process can be accelerated. A new Training and Mobility of Researchers (TMR) project is supporting three conferences on 'Nanoscience for Nanotechnology', the first held in Hindsgavl, Denmark, on 16-19 May. A wide range of innovative work was presented (1), and the 90 participants swapped ideas enthusiastically, often with those from other fields. Working groups were established for six key areas (2).

Professor Kjeld Schaumburg of the international organising committee called the conference "an opportunity to identify the European nanoscience community". He stressed the inter-dependence of nanoscience and nanotechnology, but warned against raising false expectations of rapid commercial results.

Industrial Orientation

How should the direction of European research be determined in a field where opportunities may not be recognised by the established disciplines, and whose commercial potential is uncertain and long-term?

Professor George Robillard of the University of Groningen is in no doubt that top scientists should work in active consultation with industrial sponsors, and free from the constraints of traditional disciplinary boundaries. Such views, not universally popular, were widely shared among the conference's younger participants.

With colleagues, Robillard is setting up BioMaDe, a nanoscience institute whose team of 100 biologists, chemists and physicists will be independent and device-oriented. "We want industrial scientists to work directly with us," he explains, "so that when we have a choice of direction we always opt for the one that is most promising from an applications perspective."

Public research funding will also play a key role in shaping European nanoscience. Under the current Fourth Research Framework Programme, the European Commission has supported nanotechnology through Esprit, Biotech and Brite-Euram (3) and, in the field of electronics, through Esprit's Phantoms co-ordination action. Under the forthcoming Fifth Framework Programme, funding will continue to come from budgets for generic research within the thematic programmes, although mechanisms for horizontal co-ordination are being developed.

COST meanwhile, which recently launched four actions covering nanotechnology (4), has set up a horizontal ad hoc group on nanosciences to find ways of overcoming discipline-based barriers to cooperation and synergy. At national level, an IPTS study (5) found that nine EU Member States currently fund dedicated research programmes. The German federal government, which already puts ECU 60 million into nanotechnology research, is establishing five new centres of competence.

"This is a rapidly growing market," says Bernd Kramer of the German Ministry. "We want to support the areas with the greatest market potential."

(1) See 'Key Techniques and Approaches' for a selection of the work presented at Hindsgavl.
(2) Materials and nano-chemistry; nano patterning; nano-sensors and biophysics; nano-scale physics; nano-instrumentation; and economic and social aspects. Information about the working groups can currently be found at
(3) See the Case Studies, below, for examples of projects under each programme. Work has also been funded under the SMT and Joule programmes.
(4) COST actions 523 (Nanostructured Materials), D14 (Functional Molecular Materials), D15 (Nanochemistry at Surfaces and Interfaces) and P5 (Mesoscopic Electronics). See the Dossier on COST, edition 6/94.
(5) 'Nanotechnology in Europe: Experts' Perceptions and Scientific Relations between Sub-areas', Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, 1997 (EUR 17710 EN).

More :
  • Showcase: Key Techniques and Approaches - These examples of work presented at the TMR Conference in Hindsgavl illustrate the scope of European nanoscience.
  • Case Study : A Bright Idea - Advanced nanoscience research can make a rapid market impact.
  • Case Study : Flexing their BICEPS - A transnational team is perfecting the interface between three technologies.
  • Case Study: Breaking the Size Barrier - Will the predicted annual doubling of the number of transistors per chip finally hit the buffers around 2010? An Esprit project is finding ways to keep Moore's Law on track.
Contact :
• Esprit: K. Glinos
Fx. +32 2 296 8390
E-m. (email removed)
• Biotech: P. de Taxis du Poet
Fx. +32 2 299 1860
E-m. (email removed)
• Brite-Euram: A. Martin Hobdey
Fx. +32 2 296 5987
E-m. (email removed)
• COST: O. Pfaffenzeller
Tl. +32 2 296 1910
Fx. +32 2 296 4289
E-m. (email removed)
• IPTS: I. Malsch
Tl. +34 95 4488 257
Fx. +34 95 4488 279
E-m. (email removed)


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