Most research in Europe, in nanotechnology or any other field, is not funded by the European Union. Somewhere between 90% and 95% of research funding comes from national research agencies, working with their own procedures, to their own national priorities. This bothers some people, who see this as yet another example of the way in which Europe doesn’t get its act together and thus fails to live up to its potential. In research, the European Commission fears that, compared to rivals in the USA or the far east, European efforts suffer from fragmentation and duplication. Their solution is the concept of the “European Research Area”, in which different national funding agencies work to create a joint approach to funding, as well as doing what they can to ensure free movement of researchers and ideas across the continent. As part of this initiative, national research agencies have come together to form thematic networks. Nanoscience has such a network, and it is meeting this week in Amsterdam to finalise the details of a joint funding call on the theme of singly addressable nanoscale objects.
Another way of looking at the issue of the many different approaches used in funding nanoscience across Europe is that this gives us a laboratory of different approaches, a kind of controlled experiment in science funding models. Yesterday’s meeting was devoted to series of overviews of the national nanoscience landscape in each country. This was instructive and contrasting; among the large countries one had the German approach, with major groups across the country being supported with really substantial infrastructure. The French had most logical and comprehensive overall plan, while the talk describing the British effort (given by me) couldn’t entirely hide its ad-hoc and largely unplanned character. The presentations from smaller countries varied from really rather impressive displays of focused activities (from the Netherlands, Finland and Austria in particular), to more aspirational talks from countries like Portugal and Slovakia.
How do the European nations rank in nanoscience? The undisputed leader is clearly Germany, with France and the UK vying for second place. Readers of this blog will know that I’m suspicious of bibliometric measures, but some interesting data was shown showing France second and the UK third by total numbers of nanoscience papers, but with that order being reversed when only highly cited papers were considered. But the efforts of the rich, smaller European countries are very significant; these are countries with high per person GDP figures which typically spend a higher proportion of GDP on research than larger countries. They combine this with a very focused and targeted approach to the science they support. The Netherlands, in particular, looks very strong indeed in those areas that it has chosen to concentrate on.