At 23 years old and as a part-time bass guitarist in a rock band, Bregt Verreet seems an unlikely pioneer, in science at least. But today he is among the first graduates from the Erasmus Mundus Master of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology programme, a joint master's degree offered by several leading European institutions. The programme is one of several that have cropped up across Europe to train scientists in this specialized, transdisciplinary field.
"Nanotechnology is an incredibly interesting and broad field," says Verreet, who is now pursuing a Ph.D., working on organic solar cells at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium, where he also earned his master's degree. "It undoubtedly has a great future and not only helps us to understand the world at this intriguing dimension but also enables us to control, modify, and optimise it for specific applications."
Indeed, nanotechnology has garnered the attention and support of leaders, politicians, and scientists around the world. Projections are rosy: According to a 2006 report by Lux Research in New York City, the industry will directly employ more than 30,000 "white-coat" nanotech developers by the end of 2008. An additional 2 million blue-collar jobs in areas such as manufacturing will follow within a decade. In Europe, the European Union (EU) Seventh Framework Programme will contribute about €600 million per year to nanotechnology research until 2013, with an additional, similar amount being provided by individual countries. That gives Europe a larger yearly spend on nanotechnology than the United States or Japan.
"There has been a vast investment," says Nicholas Sergeant, who is also a graduate of the Erasmus Mundus nanotech programme at KU Leuven and is about to embark on a nanoelectronics Ph.D. at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. "Nanotechnology undoubtedly has a great future, and the industry is looking for multidisciplinary engineers and scientists with a broad knowledge of several fields."
But behind the hype and excitement lies an important question that every industry, old or new, needs to answer if it is to survive. Can nanotechnology justify the vast amounts of capital being funnelled into research and development, and is it actually creating an industry to employ Verreet, Sergeant, and the rest of the new generation of young scientists drawn to it?
Nanotechnology will face a couple of unique challenges in Europe. The continent's commitment to nanotechnology research is on par with that in Asia or the United States, explains Andy Garland, head of information for Nanoposts.com, a Web site that helps companies find relevant leading-edge nanotechnologies. "However, most European nations have not really embraced nanotechnology and its potential in the same manner," he says. "Most Asia-Pacific governments, for example, have designated nanotechnology a national science and technology key priority area alongside others such as materials and medicine, which are also underpinned by nanotechnology."
In particular, Garland points to Europe's rather dull track record in commercialisation. "The common denominator in the U.S. and Asia is the willingness of indigenous companies to embrace the potential of nanotechnology," he says. Funding by indigenous multinationals in Asia and the United States far outweighs that of most European companies; Germany is the exception. Most large Japanese companies, for example, have "in-house nanotechnology sections--an achievement matched by only a handful of European companies," Garland adds.
That's likely to change, however. "Nanotechnology is in a nascent stage world over," says Kshitij Aditeya Singh of the Institute of Nanotechnology in Stirling, U.K., a major umbrella organisation that aims to develop and promote nanotechnology in Europe. "There is a lot of government investment going in research, and the E.U. hopes the public money will encourage private companies to invest. The industry is aware and interested."
The German model
Singh and Garland point to Germany as a country whose approach to fostering a nanotech industry has been widely admired and whose strategies aim to overcome the industry's commercialisation challenges. Germany's investment in nanotechnology is nearly equivalent to that of the other European countries combined: about €330 million per year.
Ambitiously titled "Nanotechnology Conquers New Markets," the German strategy was introduced in 2004 as part of the government's effort to boost investment in high-tech growth sectors. Other important sectors targeted include biotechnology and medical engineering.
The German policy seeks to build regional centres that bring together researchers from different scientific and technical disciplines as well as potential corporate customers. The goal is to promote the application of nanotechnology across a broader range of industrial sectors and improve its commercialisation.
"A huge amount of Germany's nanotechnology research is either industry-led or has large industry participation, helping to stimulate job creation and commercialisation," says Del Stark, chief executive officer of the European Nanotechnology Trade Alliance, an industry body that represents the interests of nanotechnology businesses across Europe. "But there is a general shortage of students taking science-based courses, and this will have a huge impact for those companies wishing to hire scientists."
The need for nanoscientists
According to a 2004 German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) report, the government is worried that any shortage of well-trained scientists could lead to bottlenecks in innovation and stall Germany's development as a nanotechnology mecca. Thus, increasing investment in the education of young scientists and encouraging the next generation to consider nanotechnology as a career is vital to boosting Germany's future competitiveness and potential, the report says.
BMBF has already started to modernize and internationalise Germany's higher education system in science. A range of postgraduate scholarships and junior professorships have been introduced to raise Germany's appeal for young scientists, including schemes such as the German Research Foundation’s Emmy Noether Programme and the BioFuture Programme. More specific to nanotechnology, BMBF has increased funding for the sector by a factor of 4 since 1998 and since 2003 has been running the international NanoFutur competition, which gives a maximum of 250 young scientists in nanotechnology-related fields the chance to receive generous funding and carry out work in research groups with a large amount of autonomy. Seventeen groups were established during the first funding round, and another €20 million has been allocated for further rounds.
BMBF hopes these measures will encourage young scientists who have left Germany to return home and also enhance its attractiveness to scientists from abroad. "The investment has not yet paid off but will do so in about 5 to 10 years from now," says Franz Faupel of the University of Kiel, who runs the North German Initiative Nanomaterials. "New jobs are already being created now, but many more will be available on this time scale."
Low risk, high yield
Faupel believes that there are very good opportunities for young scientists now entering the field and that the risk is very small, as the skills required are also relevant to other fields such as materials science, chemistry, biotechnology, and microelectronics. "There is no nanotechnology industry as such," Faupel says. "Nanotechnology is used now in almost all industrial branches and is strongly interdisciplinary."
In Europe, the apparent demand for skilled scientists has fuelled the emergence of programmes such as the Erasmus Mundus nanotech scheme, which began in 2005 and is now producing its first batch of graduates. The 2-year programme, offered at KU Leuven, Chalmers in Sweden, Leiden University and Delft University of Technology, both in the Netherlands, and the Technical University of Dresden in Germany, allows students to split their studies between research groups at different universities. Europe's nanotech initiatives have also increased funding for research and provided scholarships for foreign students to study nanotechnology in Europe.
"Our ambition is to attract non-E.U. scientists to come, study, and hopefully work here eventually," says Paul Heremans of KU Leuven, the coordinator of the programme, which awards 17 overseas grants annually. "This is not only an advertisement for nanotechnology in Europe but also allows us to form a strong network of nanotech scientists all over the world."
"Eventually, nanoscience will become mainstream science," says Verreet. "Most of the investments in nanotech are long-term investments, but I am confident that in the end, a huge field will be established with many applications. I am continuing in research, and when the technology is ready for commercialization, I will be keen to get a job in industry."
Amarendra Swarup is a science writer in London.
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Images. Top: courtesy: NSF. credit: Raymond Ashoori, MIT. Middle: courtesy of the subjects.