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Posted: January 13, 2008
Australia cuts $12 million from National Nanotechnology Strategy
(Nanowerk News) The Rudd Government's budget axe will fall on the technology behind self-cleaning windows and stain-resistant clothes, after unions expressed concerns over the safety of the emerging field of nanotechnology.
As Treasurer Wayne Swan seeks to make savings of more than $10 billion, it has been decided that one of the casualties will be the four-year, $21.5 million National Nanotechnology Strategy launched by the Howard government. It is to be cut short by two years, saving Treasury almost $12 million.
Mike Ford, associate director of the University of Technology Sydney's Institute for Nanoscale Technology, said the surprise decision could leave Australia "out of the game" on nano-technology.
"In terms of cutting the budget, it seems a very short-sighted thing to do because there's no doubt Europe, the US and Japan are putting a lot of money into these types of initiatives, and we're going to fall behind," he said.
Nanotechnology is the precision-engineering of materials at the scale of one ten-thousandth of the width of a human hair.
By opening up opportunities to rearrange atoms and molecules, it has allowed scientists to improve on existing products, adding properties such as UV- and stain-resistance to clothes, and the capacity for glass to self-clean.
The technology, used in products such as paints, pharmaceuticals, microelectronic devices and composite materials, is already worth more than $US40 billion ($45 billion) globally and could reach $US1 trillion by 2020, according to a 2006 government-commissioned report.
But the building blocks being used are so small that they have raised concerns of unexpected side effects - such as their potential to slip through the human body's usual defences to conventional chemicals.
At the time of the 2006 report's preparation, the ACTU warned the Howard government against the sidelining of health, safety and environmental concerns. It had earlier flagged it would back prohibition of nanoparticles production if the risks could not be managed.
Associate Professor Ford said scientists readily accepted the need for due diligence on the technology.
"It needs to be done, as it does with all new technology," he said. "But, at the other extreme, it's not as if nanotech is going to suddenly start killing people and taking over the world."
One of the three priorities of the National Nanotechnology Strategy, to be scrapped in July 2009, was to convene a health, safety and environmental working group to co-ordinate regulatory issues.
The others were to support a state-of-the-art atomic force microscope to help develop nanoscale standards in Australia, and to raise public awareness and interest in the technology
Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Minister Kim Carr said these were "all very important objectives".
"But the question is whether the National Nanotechnology Strategy, as established under the previous government, is necessarily the best way to achieve them."
Senator Carr said the Government would carry out a wide-ranging review of Australia's national innovation system. "The review will specifically look at the issues of frontier science and emerging or enabling technologies - such as nanotechnology - to determine how these technologies can be integrated into the national innovation system as a whole".