Brussels, 15 Apr 2005
Being a relatively new scientific discipline, many academic institutions and public authorities are still in the process of assessing teaching and training needs in the nanosciences. So what is already in place, and what does the user community actually want from university graduates in terms of new knowledge? Participants at a workshop in Brussels on 14 April sought answers to these questions.
Addressing the training needs of nanoscience and nanotechnology is complicated by the fact that it is not a scientific discipline in its own right, but cuts across many other disciplines. A completely new approach is therefore required at universities. The traditional structure of universities, where, for example, a physics student is based in the physics faculty and rarely if ever has any contact with the biology students, has to change.
This is also the approach that industry would like to see, according to Tim Harper, CEO of Cientifica and Executive Director of the European NanoBusiness Association. 'Employers don't really want graduates with a first degree in nanoscience. They prefer a solid grounding in science with a conversion course - a Masters or a PhD - afterwards,' he said.
A less specialised approach is also favoured by the European Commission. While the traditional approach to education can be depicted as an inverted pyramid, with the breadth of study getting narrower as the researcher progresses, head of the Commission's unit on research training networks Bruno Schmitz outlined the need for an hourglass approach to nano training, with the breadth of study widening again as the researcher gains in experience.
Although the number of science graduates is decreasing, and ironically at a time when, as Dr Harper highlighted, technology is playing an increasingly important role in our lives, more and more courses are emerging in the areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology.
Mark Morrison from the Institute of Nanotechnology in the UK informed participants that while most EU countries are establishing specialised courses in these fields, the market is dominated by the UK, Germany, France and Denmark. An increasing number of e-learning courses on nanoscience and nanotechnology are also being established, although obstacles such as concerns about standards, a lack of financial support, and internal resistance from some universities is slowing their growth.
It is not just a question of producing more graduates, but of producing better graduates, said Dr Harper. With this in mind, the European NanoBusiness Association carried out a survey among companies using nanoscience or nanotechnology earlier this year in order to assess their needs. Most claimed that it is difficult to recruit people with the right skills, and many thought that this represents an urgent problem - 33 per cent of respondents indicated that they expect nanotechnology to have an effect on their business within the next year.
Dr Harper also highlighted the gap between academia and industry as an additional factor impacting upon businesses. 'Europe has no shortage of academic institutions working on nanoscience, so why are we still less competitive? There is still something missing. Most universities have technology transfer offices, but how many include basic entrepreneurial skills. We need to repair the links between academia and industry,' he said.
It is difficult for academics to spot commercial opportunities if they are not familiar with business, Dr Harper said, adding the warning: 'The problem is urgent and will only get worse if we don't start addressing it.'
The focus should not shift entirely to the applied end of the science, to nanotechnology rather than nanoscience however. The hunt for commercial opportunities must not mean an end to basic research, said Dr Harper.
EU support for nanoscience and nanotechnology is set to continue. Under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), 1.429 billion euro was available for Nanotechnologies and nanosciences, knowledge-based multifunctional materials and new production processes and devices, and this figure is set to increase under FP7. 'Nanosciences, nanotechnologies, materials and new production technologies' has already been outlined as a research priority in the Commission's proposals for the programme.
Support will also continue for training in nanoscience and nanotechnology under the EU's Marie Curie programme. Since 1994 the Commission has already invested 61.9 million euro in this area and funded 1379 person years. These figures are guaranteed to increase before the end of FP6 as schemes have so far only been funded under the first call for proposals.
For further information on the EU's nanoscience and nanotechnology initiatives, please visit:
Remarks: The brochure 'Nanotechnology: innovation for tomorrow's world', published by the European Commission, is now available in seven languages, and will soon be made available in another 16 languages at the reference above.