What would happen if nanotechnology suddenly went out of fashion in the academic world, all the big nano-funding initiatives dried up, and putting the nano word in grant applications doomed them to certain failure? Would all the scientists who currently label themselves nanoscientists just go back to being chemists and physicists as before? This interesting question was posed to me on Monday during a fascinating afternoon seminar and discussion with social scientists from the Institute for Environment, Philosophy and Public Policy at Lancaster University.
My first reaction was to say that nothing would change. Scientists can be a cynical bunch when it comes to funding, and it’s tempting to assume that they would just relabel their work yet again to conform with whatever the new fashion was, and carry on just as before. But on reflection my answer was that the rise of nanoscience and nanotechnology as a label in academic science has been accompanied by two real and lasting cultural changes. The first is so well-rehearsed that it’s a cliché to say it, but it is nonetheless true – nanoscientists really have got used to interdisciplinary working in a way that was very rare in academia twenty years ago (of course, it has always been the rule in industry). The second change is less obvious, though I think I first noticed it as a marked change six or seven years ago. This was a shift in emphasis away from testing theories and characterising materials towards making widgets or gizmos – things that, although usually still far away from being a real, viable product, did something or produced some functional effect. More than any use of the label “nano”, this seems to me to be a lasting change in the way scientists judge the value of their own and other peoples’s work; it’s certainly very much reflected in the editorial policies of the glamour journals like Nature and Science. Some will mourn the eclipse of the values of pure science values, while others will anticipate a more direct economic return on our societies’s investments in science as a result, but it remains to be seen what the overall outcome of this shift will be.