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Posted: Apr 17th, 2008
Nanotechnology funding strategy in Germany shows a growing focus on sustainability aspects
(Nanowerk Spotlight) The European Union currently spends about 740 million Euros (roughly $1.2 billion) annually in public funding on nanotechnology research. This is almost on par with the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) budget of $1.28 billion (2007). Almost 40% of public EU nanotechnology funding takes place in Germany and it is estimated that about half of the European companies active in nanotechnology are based in Germany, making the country the clear nanotechnology leader in Europe. Germany’s strengths include a well structured R&D infrastructure and a high level of research in the various subfields of nanotechnology. The industrial base for utilizing the results of this research is also in place. About 700 companies are currently involved in the development, application, and sales and marketing of nanotechnological products. 130 of these are large companies, and 570 are small or medium sized enterprises. The VDI Technologiezentrum maintains a database with over 1130 links to nanotechnology companies, university labs, networks and research centers. Click the map below to explore the database.
What sets public nanotechnology policy in Germany and other European countries apart from the U.S. is a more deliberate attempt to create, and evolve over time, an integrated approach in the development of nanotechnology research, trying to link sustainability questions and technology development.
A recent report analyzes the relationship between innovation and sustainability in light of the development of the nanotechnology funding strategy in Germany. This strategy has been guided by an integrated approach of technology management activities. The report, titled "Nanotechnology in Germany: from forecasting to technological assessment to sustainability studies", describes how this led from technological forecasting activities, the definition of application fields and market surveys to early technological assessment activities and sustainability studies combined with communication measures. The importance of sustainability aspects grew steadily throughout this process, and the integrated approach facilitated the early detection of relevant sustainability issues to be dealt with in the future.
The report has been authored by researchers from the Future Technologies Division of the VDI Technologiezentrum in Düsseldorf, Germany. VDI is the Association of German Engineers and its two technology centers are providing support, planning and forecasting expertise to decision-makers in academics, politics, and industry. The VDI experts argue that the experience with the evolving nanotechnology funding strategy in Germany underlines the importance of integrating innovation measures in research funding with work on systematically assessing the sustainability potential of the new technologies.
But they also acknowledge that "certainly, the potential of nanotechnology to contribute to sustainability has not been fully exploited by these activities. It remains interesting to ask how this potential could be fully exploited and used as early as possible."
Both nanotechnology and environment/sustainability have been on the research agenda in Germany since the early 1990s. As is often the case, both research agendas frequently were set up in different programs, divisions or thematic sections, usually with minimal overlap. Consequently, it required deliberate efforts and strategies to build linkages between the two areas, requiring systematic approaches that integrate both views.
The main federal funding agency in Germany tasked with promoting pre-commercial nanotechnology R&D is the Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). Starting its nanotechnology activities in the early 1990s, the Ministry's strategic orientation of its nanotechnology funding policy has seen a a substantial shift in the last decade, with sustainability aspects playing an increasing role.
Broadly defined, sustainability is economic development that takes full account of the environmental consequences of economic activity and is based on the use of resources that can be replaced or renewed and therefore are not depleted. Sustainability has been on the political agenda in Germany for the past 20 years and the German Government has recognized sustainability as a cross-sectional task and has made it a fundamental principle of its policy.
In 2001, the German government launched launched a national sustainability strategy (pdf download, 2.1 MB) which defines four guiding principles (generational equity, quality of life, social cohesion, and international responsibility), six areas of activity and 21 indicators for monitoring progress in these areas. As part of implementing the strategy, the German Council for Sustainable Development was established in 2001. The Council makes recommendations to experts in a variety of fields and fosters an informed public debate.
The VDI's overview shows that nanotechnology funding activities address 11 of the 21 criteria of the national sustainability strategy in three of the four guiding principles. Besides contributions in ecological indicators such as resource productivity and energy efficiency, social and economic indicators like employment and gender issues are also addressed by the programs.
The integrated approach followed by the BMBF resulted in a very quick switch from a mere technology push to a market pull strategy, since a high level of involvement of companies in the research programs was achieved. As the focus switched early from curiosity-driven research to applied research, the VDI authors point out that early orientation towards industry interests had two (maybe adverse) effects on the role of sustainability in the development of nanotechnology:
"On the one hand, the strong focus on industry interests and marketable solutions fostered a concentration on potential future lead markets like the automobile sector, the chemical industry or ICT technologies. This did not preclude sustainable solutions, but the main focus and the main criterion for project and funding decisions was the perspective of opening up new emerging markets as opposed to pointing to sustainability effects produced by these technology fields. The concentration on lead innovations and lead markets may have neglected other fields where nanotechnology could contribute to sustainability, e.g. soil remediation, and water purification or pollution control.
"On the other hand, the market assessments and patent analyses served to define the application fields for the new technology at a very early stage during the process. This in turn paved the road for an early launch of the innovation and technology analysis. The insights gained from the technology forecasting process and the market analyses could be used directly and without time delays for a substantiated first innovation and technology analysis (ITA) study. Thus, the relevant fields for further ITA questions (like toxicity of nanoparticles, behavior in the environment) could be identified and decisions on rewarding issues for first quantitative life cycle assessments of nanotechnology products could be made."
In stark contrast to the U.S., where a large part of nanotechnology R&D funding comes from the military – with a resulting focus on deliverables and applications – the identification of relevant issues for ITA in Germany has helped design a communication and education process at a time when the debate was still open and fixed pro- and contra groups had not yet formed within society. The authors point out that "from the very beginning, critical issues such as health, toxicity and environmental effects were integrated into the communication measures such as the NanoTruck and built a knowledge base for the discussion on the acceptance of the new technology."
The German approach to developing nanotechnologies, taking into consideration all societal aspects, is clearly documented in the Nano Initiative - Action Plan 2010 (pdf download, 1.9 MB) where, for the first time, a unified framework across seven key federal ministries has been presented. The Federal Ministries for Labor and Social Affairs (BMAS), Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV), Defense (BMVg), Health (BMG) and Commerce and Technology (BMWi) together with the BMBF have laid the foundations to, among other things, lead an intensive dialogue with the public on the chances of nanotechnology including its risks. To this end, possible effects on health and nature will be analyzed, a common strategy on environmental risks of insoluble nanoparticles developed, and modern means of information and participation of the public applied.
In general terms, the activities described by the VDI paper – integrating sustainability issues in technology development as early as possible – can be seen as complementary and supportive to approaches that focus more on the sustainability challenges (e.g. climate change, water purification) and then derive the activities and technology developments necessary to achieve progress in these fields. However, as the authors point out, "the main challenge in this context remains how to merge the different research cultures of innovation/technology and sustainability research."
What this report nicely lays out is that technology development and sustainability issues cannot be seen as two different, even opposite, policy goals but have to go hand in hand. While technology development clearly is in the self-interest of industry, sustainability is not, at least not until it results in negative factors (such as oil prices spiking well over $100 a barrel) that have an economic impact on companies.
Indirectly, the paper also makes the case for a deliberate technology development policy and strategic guidance from the government in areas where market forces alone would not lead to timely solutions that are most beneficial for society overall.