Nanotechnology is one of the areas highlighted as an important development in addressing global challenges. To make that happen, we must dare to invest – and dare to invest over time.
SwedNanoTech Chairman Lars Leijonborg considers how Europe can leverage nanotechnology research investments…
Nanotechnology is an intriguing area. The possibilities seem endless and we stand at the edge of a new world of discoveries and developments. But Europe has fallen behind in the race for nano research results. To change this, we need courage to invest for the future, but we also need patience.
When I was appointed Swedish Minister of Education and Research in 2006, I became aware of the extensive investments that both the US and Asia had put into the nanotechnology field. With these investments and good collaboration they had come far further than in Europe. One example was the fact that our American and Japanese friends (and competitors) already had the type of neutron microscopes called ‘spallation sources’. In Europe, we still debated if we had the money to build one and – if we had – where to build it.
I personally was not too familiar with the potential of nanotechnology at that time. But in conversations with experts and during travels, I realised quite quickly that this was an area that held great promise for the future. That led me to advocate for a substantial increase in investment in its research.
I became deeply engaged in the negotiations of the establishment of the European Spallation Source (ESS) in Sweden, which will come into force in 2019. With these combined forces, the ESS will not only be one of the world’s most advanced facilities for exploring matter’s smallest parts, but it will also be a good example of what can be achieved when countries cooperate towards a common goal.
Catching up with the USA and Asia
During my three years as minister, I represented Sweden in the EU Council of Research Ministers. I was involved in the launching of FP7, with its main focus of finding solutions to grand challenges such as water scarcity, energy beyond fossil fuel, environmental issues and pandemics.
An unrivalled proportion of FP7 funding – about €900m – has been allocated to nanotechnology, new materials and production technologies (NMP). Further, within the European Research Council (ERC) and the Marie Curie programme, nearly 900 projects within the nanotechnology area are funded with a total volume of approximately €800m.
We are still behind our overseas competitors, but a lot is being done to change that. There is no doubt that the nanotechnology field is flourishing and considered important in Europe’s new research programme Horizon 2020. Europe has several strong regions for nanotechnology research and one of them is undoubtedly Sweden. In relation to its size, Sweden provides a high quality in both research results and facilities within the field of nanotechnology.
The boundaries of what was possible to achieve in the nano field moved forward with the construction of the first scanning tunnelling microscope in 1982. The microscope gave researchers the opportunity for the first time to actually see and move individual atoms, opening up a world of possibilities.
A research minister’s dream scenario is to congratulate Nobel laureates from his or her own country. But I have realised that the process of selecting the laureates can be rewarding as well. The scanning tunnelling microscope gave its creators Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer the Nobel Prize in 1986, only four years after publishing their findings. Through the Nobel selection process, Swedish academia became alert to the new microscopy imaging technology at an early stage.
Surprising side effects
Sweden recognised what the implications of the scanning tunnelling microscope could have on the research community, and launched the ‘Micronic and Materials Consortia programmes’, unique long-term programmes with a focus on materials, electronics, microstructures and biology.
Within the programme, Swedish universities applied for a number of long-term projects, each with a time span of between four and 10 years. The model of long-term investments had several positive effects on the Swedish research climate. Projects spanning such a long time gave dignity to the projects granted. The longer time span also gave researchers the opportunity to aim for a higher strategic level in the applications than in shorter projects. There was simply more time to get the job done and to go deeper into the research field. Time also gave researchers an opportunity to define and organise the administration concerning the project. After four years, an evaluation was made on whether the project should continue, and if not, the project started to phase out with diminishing funding.
Of the projects funded, six came to run the entire time span of 10 years. In the evaluation of the projects, it was not only good research results that could be seen; there had also been a considerable improvement in infrastructure, strengthened relations with the surrounding business community and a better cooperation between institutions. This was proof that long-term investments resulted in something greater than just the research itself: cooperation and partnerships. Strong collaboration, a better climate for innovation and viable alliances between academia and industry are factors that should be considered as added value in a project’s lifetime. Certain effects must grow organically through relevant partnerships and common goals, and not produced and designed in a project plan.
A long-term research project can have two sides. On the one hand there is the constructing aspect: what is to be achieved, the results to be produced and the timetable for the work to be performed. On the other hand, there is the organic aspect: the positive effects of human collaboration, creating and strengthening relationships and increasing the trust capital between stakeholders. There is a fundamental difference between the two: one side can be planned, evaluated and measured. The other one cannot.
To dare to invest in long-term research is therefore essential both to create good research and to create a fruitful breeding ground for innovations, investments and companies. For Sweden, that model was the key to today’s nanotechnology research success. In the research bill that I presented for the Swedish Parliament in 2008, long-term and strategic research funding was a cornerstone.
The importance of being brave
Horizon 2020 highlights application-based and public beneficial research, advocating an open dialogue where science is made more accessible to the public. Nanotechnology is one of the areas highlighted as an important development in addressing global challenges. To make that happen, we must dare to invest – and dare to invest over time.
With a longer time span for the projects, we provide conditions for important research and relationship building between countries and regions, something that will improve the return on our investments. It will not go fast, but it will go over time – we just need to be patient.