Brussels, 24 Jun 2003
The Commission's role is not to promote nanotechnology per se, but to develop knowledge of nanosciences and nanotechnologies in order to help and support Europe's citizens. The Commission is doing this by supporting research into both the uses of nanotechnologies, and the possible side effects, said Renzo Tomellini, head of unit for nanosciences and nanotechnologies in the European Commission, in an interview with CORDIS News.
The use of materials at the 'nano' scale is not new. Nanoparticles were used by the Romans to make glasses, and during the Renaissance period to make ceramic. However, although some elements were used in the past, it is the understanding of nanotechnology and how it can be used which is new. This development has led to an increased interest in the subject. Mr Tomellini believes a growth in scientific knowledge and capacity as well as the confidence of scientists led to the higher profile of nanotechnology, coupled with the launch of a very visible nanotechnology initiative in 2001 by then US President Bill Clinton.
'Nanotechnology became in fashion. Of course, as with everything in fashion, there are expectations and hopes, but also sometimes polemics and fears, and now nanotechnology has become a bit of a show piece.'
The potential of nanotechnology and this increased interest was mirrored by the Commission's framework programmes. Funding for nanotechnology projects began under the Fourth Framework Programme (FP4), which ran from 1994 to 1998. Funding continued under FP5, and was increased significantly when 'nanotechnologies and nanosciences, knowledge-based multifunctional materials and new production processes and devices' became a priority under FP6, and was consequently allocated 1.3 billion euro for projects funded between 2003 and 2006.
The rise in interest in nanotechnology is also evidenced by the response that the Commission received to its first FP6 call for proposals. Almost 1,000 proposals were submitted following the joint call for nanotechnology and material production processes and devices (priority 3). The total funding requested in these proposals was 7.5 billion euro. The budget for this first call is, however, 0.4 billion euro. Proposals ranged from quantum mechanics to applications such as material science and devices for health care. Evaluation of the proposals using the new instruments (which account for around half of those received) will finish in July, while evaluation of the proposals outlining specific targeted research projects has just been completed.
A conference in the European Parliament on 11 June highlighted many concerns with regard to nanotechnology, which Mr Tomellini believes illustrated the need for science-based information and the desire to be informed: 'We intend providing such information, on the one hand by supporting responsible research projects, and on the other hand by funding appropriate studies.'
Mr Tomellini emphasised that the fears of perceived (even if sometimes unrealistic) risks should be taken into account, and highlighted justification, in addition to concern for Europe's citizens, for carrying out such research. 'We do not wish to originate negative externalities. [...] One cannot, as happened too many times in the past, produce, deliver goods and services, create wealth and provide employment, but pollute, cause environmental disasters and problems to people's health. The citizens have had to pay - for health care, etc.,' said Mr Tomellini.
'Our scope is not to support nanotechnology in itself [...]. Our scope is to help people, to serve people, to improve the quality of life for people, to improve industrial competitiveness, to protect or improve the environment, to support European policies [...]. Nanotechnology is a tool, an approach,' said Mr Tomellini. 'The interesting thing is that nanotechnology seems to be a very powerful approach to achieving these goals.'
Every project selected for funding by the Commission will also contain, where appropriate, safety, ethical, metrology and educational aspects. 'This is the advantage of integrated projects,' explained Mr Tomellini. 'They integrate research with everything which is around research, and that allows a future technology to be developed and introduced in the market and society.'
For this reason, speaking always in a personal capacity, Mr Tomellini spoke of his belief that a moratorium on some 'nano' research, as requested on 11 June by some speakers, would 'cause us to lose positive momentum, impoverish our knowledge and ability to understand and decide, and waste precious opportunities to develop useful technologies.'
'We have to do things together, to do simultaneous engineering: expanding knowledge of possible new technologies and the associated risks - if there are any. A linear approach is no longer successful, even in industry. We cannot first study nano-powders and then see whether they are dangerous and take the measures to repair disasters that have already happened. This is not responsible. We cannot, however, stop studying before we know in depth the basic principles, and which materials, products or services we can create. We have to carry out studies simultaneously and to be responsible,' said Mr Tomellini.
Mr Tomellini believes that books and articles have contributed to fears about nanotechnology. Some have combined invisibility, movement and the possibility of reproducing and learning, to create hypothetical 'nano-robots'. 'As presented, these fears are not realistic, are beyond science fiction, and have little or nothing to do with nanotechnology,' said Mr Tomellini. 'Knowledge (and research) dispense with unjustified fears. Moreover, we have to distinguish between science and its possible applications. For example, I cannot see any problems in improving the optical properties of glasses, the mechanical properties of a material or the functionality of a surface.'
Announcements regarding the use of nanotechnology by the military have perhaps fuelled this fear, according to Mr Tomellini: 'Probably the tragedy of 11 September complicated the life of nanotechnology a bit,' he said. 'Security has become a priority, and nanotechnology, being a powerful tool, is being seized also by the military.
The scientific community is working hard to acquire new knowledge in the 'nano' dimension. Initiatives have also been launched to raise awareness of nanotechnology and the reality behind the misconceptions. A documentary video has been produced and is available to stakeholders, museums, educational institutions and the media across Europe. A second video, aimed as an introduction to nanotechnology for a younger audience, will be ready soon.
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