Is nanoscience different from nanotechnology?

In definitions of nanotechnology, it has now become conventional to distinguish between nanoscience and nanotechnology. One definition that is now very widely used is the one introduced by the 2004 Royal Society report, which defined these terms thus:

“Nanoscience is the study of phenomena and manipulation of materials at atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, where properties differ significantly from those at a larger scale. Nanotechnologies are the design, characterisation, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at nanometre scale.”

This echoed the definitions introduced earlier in the 2003 ESRC report, Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology (PDF), which I coauthored, in which we wrote:

“We should distinguish between nanoscience, which is here now and flourishing, and nanotechnology, which is still in its infancy. Nanoscience is a convergence of physics, chemistry, materials science and biology, which deals with the manipulation and characterisation of matter on length scales between the molecular and the micron-size. Nanotechnology is an emerging engineering discipline that applies methods from nanoscience to create usable, marketable, and economically viable products.”

And this formulation itself was certainly derivative; I was certainly strongly influenced at the time by a very similar formulation from George Whitesides.

Despite having played a part in propagating this conventional wisdom, I’m now beginning to wonder how valid or helpful the distinction between nanoscience and nanotechnology actually is. Increasingly, it seems to me that the distinction tends to presuppose a linear model of technology transfer. In this picture, which was very widely held in post-war science policy discussions, we imagine a simple progression from fundamental research, predominantly curiosity driven, through a process of applied research, by which possible applications of the knowledge derived from fundamental science are explored, to the technological development of these applications into products or industrial processes. What’s wrong with this picture is that it doesn’t really describe how innovations in the history of technology have actually occurred. In many cases, inventions have been put into use well before the science that explains how they work was developed (the steam engine being one of many examples of this), and in many others it is actually the technology that has facilitated the science.

Meanwhile, the way science and technology is organised has greatly changed from the situation of the 1950’s, 60’s and ’70’s. At that time, a central role both in the generation of pure science and in its commercialisation was played by the great corporate laboratories, like AT&T’s Bell Labs in the USA, and in the UK the central laboratories of companies like ICI and GEC. For better or worse, these corporate labs have disappeared or been reduced to shadows of their former size, as deregulation and global competition has stripped away the monopoly rents that ultimately financed them. Without the corporate laboratories to broker the process of taking innovation from the laboratory to the factory, we are left with a much more fluid and confusing situation, in which there’s much more pressure on universities to move beyond pure science to find applications for their research and to convert this research into intellectual property to provide future revenue streams. Small research-based companies begin whose main assets are their intellectual property and the knowledge of their researchers, and bigger companies talk about “open innovation”, in which invention is just another function to be outsourced.

A useful concept for understanding the limitations of the linear model in this new environment is the idea of “mode II knowledge production” , (introduced, I believe, by Gibbons, M, et al (1994) The New Production of Knowledge. London: Sage). Mode II science would be fundamentally interdisciplinary, and motivated explicitly by applications rather than by the traditional discipline-based criteria of academic interest. These applications don’t necessarily have to be immediately convertible into something marketable; the distinction is that in this kind of science one is motivated not by exploring or explaining some fundamental phenomenon, but by the drive to make some device or gadget that does something interesting (nano-gizmology, as I’ve called this phenomenon in the past).

So in this view, nanotechnology isn’t simply the application of nanoscience. It’s definition is as much sociological as scientific. Prompted, perhaps, by observing the material success of many academic biologists who’ve founded companies in the biotech sector, and motivated by changes in academic funding climates and the wider research environment, we’ve seen physicists, chemists and materials scientists taking a much more aggressively application driven and commercially oriented approach to their science. Or to put it another way, nanotechnology is simply the natural outcome of an outbreak of biology envy amongst physical scientists.

6 thoughts on “Is nanoscience different from nanotechnology?”

  1. An interesting distinction. You mention the example of the Steam Engine of being a technology that was developed before the science behind it was fully understood. I’m curious as to wether there were any more contemporary examples.

    I like your writing Richard. I’d like to conduct a mini interview with you for Meme Therapy. If you’re interested please contact me via email.

  2. The Telegraph is another one I believe. Internal Combustion I believe is another good candidate to check into(cuz I’m not sure though it sounds right)

  3. Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD) was developed without a full understanding (still lacking I think) of its reaction pathways.

  4. It’s funny, because I think of nanotechnology as a media buzzword now, I really hope it doesn’t end up that way. I still want my molecular assembler, though — no media buzzword will take that away from me.

  5. This is a solid argument, but the true question is, now that they have “gizmos” in mind, will the technology come more rapidly as if it were mere curiosity. Also, in this day and age, the market is a pretty tough one to break. Would gizmos of this size not have a better chance of surviving if corporate labs were developing it? (Are they coming back in style?)

  6. Eric, I don’t think corporate labs in their full glory can come back in style, because even in industry sectors that are very lucrative, the much more pressing demands that shareholders make for fast returns preclude the long time-scales inherent in that kind of R&D.

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