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With â‚¬1.4 billion allocated to 550 projects in the field of nanosciences and nanotechnology, the EU's 6th Research Framework Program accounts for one-third of total public funding for nanotechnology and is the world's largest single funding agency worldwide for this field.
A recent report, focused on the implementation of the 2005 Action Plan for Nanotechnology, shows the strategic importance of nanotechnology and the contribution this field of science can make to the quality of life and economic well-being of Europeans; for example, through revolutionary activities in key areas such as materials, electronics and medicine. The European Commission announced last week that it is committed to an integrated and responsible approach to developing nanotechnologies, taking into account all aspects - safety, acceptance by society, ethical implications and so on.
Nanotechnology is a broad term that has applications in many fields of science - biology, electronics, materials, medicine - but broadly encompasses research into the principles and properties arising at the nano-level, that is the level of atoms and molecules. These can differ significantly from the larger scale, which is why this new area of science has emerged.
Nanotechnologies make possible better products and services, and is hoped to improve quality of life and environment. Many nanotechnology-based products are already on the market, including new electronics and chemistry components, intelligent textiles, novel functional surface coatings, new diagnostic and drug delivery systems, breakthroughs in tissue regeneration, and ever faster and more accurate sensors.
The EU's 6th Research Framework Program priority targets include fundamental and industrial research, human resources, nanotechnology-specific infrastructures, safety and communication. Although there is strong industrial participation in these projects, resulting in innovation in companies (including small and medium enterprises), more and more patents and spin-offs, and a better environment for research and industry (standards, metrology, patenting etc), private investment in Europe in the field remains behind that in the US and Japan.
Under the EU's 7th Framework Program, EC funding for nanotechnologies and nanosciences is expected to increase significantly. The average yearly funding is likely to be more than double that in FP6, taking into account actions across the program. In addition, the Risk-Sharing Financing Facility established by the Commission jointly with the European Investment Bank should provide access to new funding sources.
Beyond funding, the successful development of nanotechnologies demands an integrated and responsible approach. European citizens could benefit from nanotechnology, while being protected from possible adverse impacts. To reach full potential, nanotechnology development must be attuned to society's expectations, making communication and dialogue an absolute priority. In addition to information activities in all Community languages for different target groups, the Commission has systematically promoted public dialogue, particularly with NGOs. It has launched an open consultation on a Code of Conduct for responsible nanotechnology research, which may lead to a Commission recommendation by the end of the year.
Similarly, assessing the safety of nanotechnology-based products and processes is an acclaimed central issue for European policy and has direct impact on their access to the market. Nanoparticles and their potential impact on health and the environment are being studied in close coordination with Member States and international bodies such as the UN, OECD and International Standards Organization. In addition to projects specifically devoted to safety, which have received â‚¬28 million in funding so far, all nanotechnology research projects include an ethical and safety assessment component. The European Commission is currently undertaking a review of existing legislation to see whether the current regulatory framework appropriately addresses health, safety and environmental risks. Moreover, it has taken steps to establish an observatory to provide decision-makers with dynamic assessments of scientific and market developments.
Other important issues discussed in the report are the international aspects of nanotechnology development, and the need to train the new generation of nano-scientists.
Three months ago, I wrote in this column about the European Commission's adoption of a proposal to launch a Europe-wide public-private research partnership in nanoelectronics, called ENIAC. With an expected budget of â‚¬3b. from industry, Member States and the Commission created what is hoped to be a strong nanoelectronics research and manufacturing sector in Europe.
The Europeans acknowledge that international cooperation is essential for the development of nanotechnology, where scientific and technical challenges are huge and a wider critical mass is beneficial. International collaboration can lead to better focus nanotechnology research and overcoming knowledge gaps more rapidly. Therefore, in accordance with the strategic objectives of the European Research Area which aims at being open to the world, international cooperation is said to be of major relevance to the EU Framework Programs for Research. The Framework Programs are open to almost all countries in the world. Particular attention is sought to be paid to cooperation with countries covered by the European Neighborhood Policy such as Israel.
The author is head of the International Department at the Joseph Shem-Tov law firm.