Brussels, 03 May 2004
A report published recently by the French Academies of Science and Technology has urged the French government to set up a 'national research programme', if it wants to avoid being 'a metro too late' for the small tech revolution.
The report, called 'Nanoscience, Nanotechnology', advocates the creation of a National Agency for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology'(A3N), which would centralise research initiatives and provide leadership structure to French nanotechnology research.
'The revolution of the nanosciences is characterised by an extreme pluridisciplinarity and an extremely rapid evolution,' underlined Philippe Nozières, a physician and one of the authors of the report. 'The present structures are completely incapable of answering those constraints.'
A3N would have a 'light' and 'provisional' structure with important financial resources capable of rapidly bringing together teams of physicians, chemists, biologists and engineers to work on various projects. 'Nanosciences will one day by absorbed into the normal functioning of science. What is needed is therefore a provisional structure, an agency that distributes financing,' said Mr Nozières.
The report advocates the grouping of interdisciplinary teams rather than the creation of a new research institute. 'It is preferable that the researchers remain in their original environment.'
The objective is to mobilise between 100 and 200 million euro, estimates Claude Weisbuch from the Academy of Technology, and Director of Research at the Ecole Polytechnique, to equip public laboratories and universities with medium-sized small-tech infrastructures, such as 'salles blanches' (clean rooms) to be rented out for a fee.
According to the report, this field of research is in full ebullition, while nanosciences and nanotechnologies could become a weak point for France. Indeed, France is already spending a fair amount of money on small tech research, but not in the right way, says Philippe Nozières.
A study published in 'Nanotechnology' in 2002 placed France in fifth position worldwide for scientific publications (1997-1999) and fourth in registration of patents (1991-1999). Since then, however, France has been overtaken by a number of countries, such as the US, Japan, the Netherlands and the UK, where levels of investment in this field have been accelerated.
'In France,' explained Mr Nozières, 'the money is very dispersed and there is no control over the way it is spent. There are many excellent labs, but they are very dispersed and do not integrate very well into a larger project.'
The academies therefore recommend that the A3N act as a central platform, managed by scientists, which would distribute contracts to laboratories and define national research objectives.
The report argues that government decisions over the next few years will have a critical long-term economic impact. 'We have to master matter at a nanometric scale today if we want to partake in the industry of tomorrow,' said Mr Weisbuch, as 'tomorrow will be about industry, but patents are being registered today.'
The French government has of yet not given any sign of whether it will follow the scientists' recommendations. François d'Aubert, the new Minister for Research, has not commented on the report.
This issue is not only a concern in France. Another report recently made public in the UK, 'Too little too late? Government Investment in Nanotechnology', has criticised the UK's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for failing to support small tech appropriately and for not maintaining a 'clearly focused strategy'.