Governments around the world spend about $4 billion a year on research into nanotechnology – the science of the small -- and Japan, China, South Korea and several European countries have made leadership in the fledgling field national priorities.
As an indication of nanotechnology’s growing importance, the first official meeting of the Working Party on Nanotechnology, held May 8-9 in Leuven, Belgium, addressed research cooperation, technology impacts, policy dialogues and public outreach.
The working party, proposed by the U.S. delegation during an October 2005 meeting in Paris, was formed in March by the 30-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The party is part of the OECD Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy, which addresses issues such as research financing, innovation, intellectual property rights and international science cooperation.
The party’s mission is to advise the OECD on nanotech issues and promote cooperation among participating countries on policy issues of science, technology and innovation related to responsible nanotechnology development. According to Robert Rudnitsky, a physicist in the Office of Space and Advanced Technology at the U.S. Department of State and chair of the working party, the initial program of work targets specific activities:
- Studying the impacts of nanotechnology and emerging business environments;
- Promoting research and research cooperation among OECD members and nonmembers;
- Establishing a forum for discussion among policymakers; and
- Engaging the public on nanotechnology.
OECD members are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Rudnitsky said the newly formed group also would seek to include countries that are not OECD members in its activities.
Some nonmember countries, he said in a recent USINFO interview, “have very active nanotechnology programs or are developing active nanotechnology programs, and we think it’s important that they be involved.”
Nonmembers South Africa, Israel and Russia already are involved in working party activities, he added. Other countries with substantial nanotechnology programs include Brazil, China and India.
Attending the meeting were 50 delegates from 24 countries and observer organizations, Rudnitsky said.
Nanoscience – science on the scale of atoms and molecules – describes the ability to see, measure, manipulate and manufacture things on a scale of about 1 to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter; a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
At the nanoscale, the physical, chemical and biological properties of materials differ in basic and valuable ways from the properties of individual atoms and molecules or bulk matter. Nanotechnology research and development is helping scientists and engineers understand and create materials, devices and systems that use these new properties.
Nanotechnology applications are being developed in nearly every industry, including electronics and magnetics, energy production and storage, information technology, materials development, transportation, and medicine and health. (See related article.)
Some consumer products – cosmetics, sunscreens, stain-resistant clothing, sports equipment, coatings for eye glasses – already incorporate nanotechnologies.
As part of the working party’s outreach activity, a Nanotech Outreach Workshop was held May 7-8 in Leuven, Belgium.
“The workshop,” said Cate Alexander, communications director for the U.S. National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, “was designed to present various approaches to teaching nanoscale science and reaching out to the public more broadly in the area of nanotechnology.”
The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office is an interagency office that supports the efforts of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a federal research and development program that coordinates the efforts of 26 agencies in nanoscale science, engineering and technology.
The more than 100 workshop attendees included science communicators from government, museums and science centers; policymakers; journalists; and delegates from the OECD nanotechnology working party, representing 24 countries.
“A number of people are working on ways to bring the concept of nanoscale materials and interactions to people,” Alexander said, “so they have a sense of what takes place at the nanoscale and why this scale is different.”
Workshop presenters represented a range of organizations that present science to the public – science museums, informal educators, universities, research laboratories, technology companies, media and government programs.
“What people need to know about nanotechnology,” Alexander said, “is that it’s a tool that will be used to create many beneficial new products in coming years. It’s what we call an enabling technology and it’s being used in a vast array of research fields right now, from materials science to environmental remediation to clean energy and medicine. It’s a very broad field.”
“The United States started its national nanotechnology initiative in 2001,” Rudnitsky said, “and within a few months, many other countries had started their own national nanotechnology initiatives. In effect, it was like a global starter pistol. We shined a spotlight on this area, we think it has a lot of potential, and the rest of the world seems to have taken notice.”
Additional information about nanotechnology is available on the National Nanotechnology Initiative Web site - http://www.nano.gov/
More information about OECD is available on that organization’s Web site - http://www.oecd.org/home/0,2987,en_2649_201185_1_1_1_1_1,00.html
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)