Monday, February 21, 2005

The Science of Small Things

Irish Council for Science, Technology, and Innovation (ICSTI, THE SCIENCE OF SMALL THINGS, July 2004, 75 pp.

NOT RECOMMENDED

This report rates the potential of nanotechnology enabled products and processes exported by Irish enterprises exceeding Euros 13 million by 2010 which is more than 10% of the value of current exports. As such, the report attempts to justify an all-out assault to capture market shares. It includes a national roadmap from tools and materials to applications of tools and materials in a variety of industries.

It claims 114 full-time researchers in 10 recognized groups engaged in nanotechnology research. With funding at Euros 90 million, these people are training an estimate 250 postgraduates. Ireland claims two start-ups with eight spin-outs in the next five years.

It addresses the wider community of stakeholders but in concept only. There is no delineation of whom or what composes this community beyond "relevant government departments, their agencies, professional research organizations, indigenous and multinational industry and the wider community." Again, who composes this wider community? Later, it add that the Nanotechnology Task Force agreed on recommendations that "will enable the key stakeholders to work together to exploit the nanotechnology opportunity in Ireland." The use of the term "exploit" becomes more meaningful later in the report when (p. 71) it envisaged responsible stakeholders undertake a series of recommendations and public awareness defined as "the promotion of nanotechnology in a manner that ensures its development as an important activity in Ireland..." A few pages later (74), it includes in its national strategy: "the promotion of informed consideration by the wider community of the opportunities and challenges presented by with a view to transparent regulation that attracts the support of all."

It admits that much of nanotechnology may be modern scientists and engineers hyping their findings and repackaging existing and long-established scientific and engineering principles. This trend will be addressed later in a later posting.

I did like the citation on p. 13 from Deutsch Bank which claimed the market for nanomaterials alone (sans tools) was $0.12 trillion in 2002 with this market growing at an annual rate of 15% to $0.37 trillion by 2010. On the same page, the report cites the Department of Trade and Industry (UK) that at present 1% of all medical devices are nanotechnology-enabled. While I am unprepared to vouch for these estimates, they are worth some greater investigation.

The report examines a set of sectors: electronics, photonics, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, agri-food, polymers and plastics, and construction. The most interesting observation here deals with food. The Irish food industry has been hampered by being 3 days removed from major markets in Europe. However, advances in nanotechnology enhanced preservatives and additives and intelligent packaging would leverage those markets. Of course, this also means that it would leverage other agricultural suppliers into major markets as well. The implication this may have to agricultural commodity markets and food surpluses is also worth more study.

When it comes to safety consideration, there is little concern expressed in this report. Generally, no significant short-term regulatory issues for nanotools. Few significant short-term regulatory issues for nanomaterials, nanodevices, and nanosystems (p. 67). It does call on regulators to focus on metrology and accreditation of labs providing independent testing and ensuring existing regulations are sufficiently robust to protect individuals in preparation, handling, and disposal of nanomaterials. It does admit some potential ethical or environmental implications from convergence and concern for privacy and security rights from ambient communication and computing.

In summary, this is a promotional document. Societal and ethical considerations are tagged as a way to promote the technology. Wider stakeholder participation is added as a way to maximize the promotion. Overall, the document adds very little to the nanotechnology corpus of reports and testimony.

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