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University of Idaho
Eric Aston, professor in the department of chemical engineering at the University of Idaho, explores the difference between nanoscience and nanotechnology and how that difference affects researchers and their funding agencies.
February 28th, 2009
Nanoscience vs. Nanotechnology: In Search of the Grant
The ancient Egyptians used nanotechnology more than 3,000 years ago even though they had no concept of the underlying nanoscience. They only knew that a particular mixture of wet sand worked really well for lubricating the ground where they pulled huge blocks of limestone to build the pyramids.
Thirty centuries later, nanoscience and nanotechnology has, to a degree, come full circle. At some point in the intervening years, scientists have illuminated the existence and properties of the tiniest conglomerates of normal matter, which individually we call atoms and molecules. This process of discovery accelerated until the word "nano" described inventions ranging from new cancer medications to longer-lasting tennis balls. New nanomaterials sprang up so quickly that scientists and businessmen alike scrambled to find applications for them in their excitement to bring science fiction into reality.
In practical terms, this means that more nanoproducts come from trial and error than nanoscience - rather than actually understanding the physics and chemistry behind the technology.
Physicists first demonstrated the transistor decades before the underlying principles were understood deeply enough to enable engineers to develop useful and even everyday applications. In stark contrast, today's scientists often appear to be expected to have a fully developed application for their newfound knowledge even before being awarded a grant to discover the technology itself. The concept of "Nanotechnology" in many ways is a supposed, and even expected, solution looking for problems in areas where the science is not ready. At least, not yet.
To take the technology process one step further, today's scientists and engineers are also asked to wear the hats of a sociologist, psychologist and marketer. They are asked to gaze into the future and predict what effects their investigations into the fundamental workings of the universe will have on cultural issues, the environment and the economy. And we need to know these things.
Don't get me wrong, we should expect a higher standard of ethics as the driving force behind why we do fundamental research. We should not ignore the potential for both positive and negative societal impacts, like the hazards of creating materials that have never existed in nature. They may possess toxicological or environmental dangers that we should be prepared to avoid or, in the worst case, mitigate. But a single person or even one set of collaborators is neither trained nor well-suited to do all of these things.
So here is the opportunity for the science side of the house: in order to obtain substantial research grants, even funding from entities devoted to fundamental science, investigators are required to work collaboratively with those who are trained to answer these broader questions reaching far beyond the laboratories. This is a point that the BANTech (Biological Applications of Nantechnology) group at the University of Idaho recognizes and makes central to their mission.
Some of my research involves the detection of chemical sensors for salts and biomaterials, but I am also interested in bionanomaterials for composites, for cellular targeting and modification and many other multidisciplinary projects. I'm constantly looking for other areas to work with people in their own research to see what kinds of questions I can help them answer that normally they wouldn't ask. It's interesting to get different perspectives and to learn from varied backgrounds rather than only working with the same colleagues and limiting ourselves just to what we know as a static collective. A core characteristic to successful interdisciplinarity is the evolution of the team.
Because of these connections, I have been lucky enough to develop newer ideas in support of our research and garner enough funding to keep my projects going. However, I also do fundamental and focused research on the side without any direct grant support, which is made possible by motivated undergraduates and faculty colleagues who want to be the lab out of their own interests.
And that's where we need to go, even if it is sometimes out of our own budgets of time and money. The ignorant methods of the so-called nanotechnology of millennia past are not very effective for what our modern world requires. We will be chained to trivial and blind trial-and-error advances in technology unless we take the time and effort to understand nanoscience better than we do today. We have wonderful tools to delve into the basic properties of materials and interactions at the nanoscale. We just need the desire - at every level from student to funding agency to the national public - to explore.