Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Center for Responsible Nanotechnology > Who will win the nano race?
Building powerfully advanced products quickly, easily, cheaply, and in huge numbers — that's the disruptive impact of molecular manufacturing. When a new technology has the potential to radically transform national and global economies, geopolitical relations, and even human social structures, we'd better learn as much about it as we can. A critically important question to answer is who. Which nation, group, corporation, or consortium is most likely to achieve the "holy grail" of nanotechnology first?
February 21st, 2008
Who will win the nano race?
Building powerfully advanced products quickly, easily, cheaply, and in huge numbers — that's the disruptive impact of molecular manufacturing. When a new technology has the potential to radically transform national and global economies, geopolitical relations, and even human social structures, we'd better learn as much about it as we can .
Over the last several months, my organization, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, has spent considerable effort  exploring the most likely timing for the development of molecular manufacturing — trying to answer the when question.
But another critically important question to answer is who. Which nation, group, corporation, or consortium is most likely to achieve the "holy grail" of nanotechnology first?
Angela Hullmann, program officer for nanosciences and nanotechnologies at the European Commission, recently published an article  in Nature Nanotechnology that asks, "Who is winning the global nanorace?"
Hullmann surveyed the entire field of nanoscience and nanotechnology "across the globe." She analyzed "scientific papers, patent applications and funding, by geography and area of nanotechnology" in an attempt to reveal "the different strengths and weaknesses of Europe with respect to the US, Japan and the rest of the world."
Although Hullmann's focus was on the broad scope of nanotech and not specifically molecular manufacturing, we may still be able to learn something from her work about the potential emergence of productive nanosystems.
As noted above, Hullmann examined the rate of publication in scientific journals by country and region, as well as patent applications and funding differences. Take a look at this table:
It appears to show a significant lead for the US, but if you look closely, you'll notice that the chart actually understates
the real advantage. The table posted in the article abridges the scale of the vertical axis, making it appear that the US lead is less than it truly is. Here is a more accurate rendition:
So, on that score, the US seems positioned to maintain a strong lead in developing nanotechnology — and, maybe, molecular manufacturing — ahead of anyone else. But published papers are only part of the story. What about funding?
Hullmann writes: "As with patents and publications, the US leads the way in public spending on nanotechnology, with the federal government investing €910 million in 2004, followed by Japan, the European Commission (EC), the individual states in the US, and Germany."
It's interesting to note that the individual states in the US (led mainly by California) make it to fourth place on the list, ahead of Germany, France, South Korea, and the rest.
On the other hand, if you add up all the public spending on nanotechnology research by nations in Europe separate from the EC, you get a different picture. As Hullmann says, "When spending by the EC and the EU member states are added together, the total exceeds that of the federal and state governments in the US."
However, those spending totals do not include investment by private companies, which alter the outlook yet again. Hullmann writes:
"When funding by industry is added, the picture is different. In the US the figure for the total spending on nanotechnology research rises to almost €3 billion when industry sources are included, followed by €2.3 billion for Japan and less than €2 billion for Europe. In other words, whereas industry sources account for around 60% of total nanotechnology spending in the US, in Europe the corresponding figure is only one-third. European industry clearly has some catching up to do."
This table indicates the disparity:
Hullmann has an interesting take on this difference:
"The relatively high level of public funding for nanotechnology in Europe does, however, have an advantage in that it gives the public — in the form of consumers, pressure groups, regulatory agencies, and both European and national funding agencies — some influence in setting priorities for nanotechnology research. This means that research into environmental, health and safety issues will not be overlooked and, if done properly, it should have a positive impact on the development of nanotechnology in terms of meeting the expectations of society and, consequently, achieving a higher level of public acceptance."
This point leads us to wonder about the possible braking effect that adverse publicity and interest group opposition may have on the development of advanced nanotechnology in the United States. In particular, it seems that there is a large potential backlash from religious entities based on moral objections .
We've raised concerns that a lack of candor on the part of industry and government officials in the US about the seriously disruptive implications of advanced nanotechnology could be a big mistake . Even though the US is still spending the most and producing the most results, it's by no means guaranteed that this lead will continue.
Unfortunately, we can't really say anything more definitive than that at this juncture. All we can do is state the obvious: At the present time, it appears that the United States still has the lead in developing nanotechnology. Japan seems to be a close second, with the European countries in third position. Quickly up and coming could be China, and other potentially significant players include South Korea, Russia, India, Australia, Brazil, Taiwan, and Singapore.
It's difficult to say how that landscape will change over the next ten or twenty years. But CRN believes the development of molecular manufacturing is enough of a "game changer" that it could abruptly alter the balance of power between nations, in favor of the group that achieves it first.
If you'd like to delve more deeply into these questions and the search for meaningful answers, you can start with an essay I wrote for Future Brief
on the "Dimensions of Development"  for advanced nanotechnology. What, when, where, who, how — all of these are vital issues we must try to understand if we hope to avoid the worst dangers and maximize the benefits.