The irresistible rise of nano-gizmology

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.

2 Responses to “The irresistible rise of nano-gizmology”

  1. Richard…there is another factor that would keep the development of nanotech going…and that is the Feynman was right…there is a lot of room at the bottom. Most scientists have discovered a wealth of real technology and real opportunity for astounding technical achievement by working in nanotech. This is real science with real IP. And nanotech has opened the eyes of many people to an entire new realm of developmental possibilities. Some of the solutions to world economic and social problems clearly come from nanotechnological solutions so independent funding sources would, most likely, replace any shortfall in governmental future funding. Gizmos are one reason but nanobased filters to remove the arsenic from contaminated “potable’ water wells in India and Bangladesh are a far more compelling reason why nanofunding and nanoefforts will not cease. The door is opened and, as we all learned in physics one, a body in motion tends to remain in motion.

  2. Richard Jones says:

    Alan, I was not doubting for a moment that nanotech is producing and will go on producing many immensely valuable products. I would, though, say that, in the industrial sectors I know best, chemicals, materials, household and personal products and food, there is a great deal of continuity between yesterday’s colloid and polymer science and today’s nanotechnology, so even there there is an issue about whether the technology would go away even if the name vanished. That’s another argument, though; the focus of my comment here was exclusively on the effect of the nanotechnology boom on the culture of academia.