Groundwork laid for development of a national nanotechnology strategy
March 16, 2006
NSA and ACST lead the charge
Canada should establish three or four national nanotechnology research centres to be funded and coordinated through a national strategy focusing on niche areas where the country can excel internationally. The recommendations were made by an international panel convened by the Office of the National Science Advisor (NSA) to assess research strengths and address the key gaps and opportunities facing Canada in nanotechnology - an area of S&T touted as the next breakthrough after biotechnology.
Entitled Assessment of Canadian Research Strengths in Nanotechnology, the Report of the International Review Panel says the centres could be built upon existing organizations such as NanoQuebec and the National Research Council's National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT). Selection of the centres could be conducted in two stages, with an initial competition held to select two centres according to broad criteria followed by a second more restrictive competition focusing on strategic areas.
The Panel recommends funding each centre at $3-5 million annually for a five-year period. Depending upon the number of centres and their funding levels, that translates into a funding requirement of $45 million to $100 million over five years. That's about half the levels recommended in a June/04 report produced by the scientific directors of the McGill Univ-based NSERC Nano Innovation Platform, which arrived at remarkably similar conclusions. (See Report on Canadian Academic Nano Funding at www.physics.mcgill.ca/NSERCnanoIP).
COORDINATED FUNDING STRATEGY REQUIRED
The second major recommendation made by the Panel is for a coordinated funding strategy that includes the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the granting councils and any other body funding nano- technology. It also calls for incentives to encourage cross-institutional and interdisciplinary R&D and says that the NRC should play a "catalytic role" for interactions with academic institutions.
"Fragmentation is a serious challenge in the Canadian research system and particularly challenging for nanotechnology. Funding coordination is essential to keep investments in operating, capital and people in proportion," states the Panel report. "The problems caused by uncoordinated funding strategies have been demonstrated by the insufficient operating funds to match investments in infrastructure."
A separate NSA report on nanotech research funding shows that, of the $550.2 million invested in nanotech R&D between 1998 and 2004, just $190.5 million went to operating funds. The NSERC Nano Innovation Platform report also stresses the problem of insufficient operating funds and warns that the investment in infrastructure may be squandered if the situation is not resolved quickly.
"An amassed collection of white elephants, instead of potentially large socio-economic benefits, could very well be the result in a few years," states the report. "Furthermore, the brain drain in the form of attracted and retained experts could very easily reverse."
The NSA coordinated efforts of the International Panel with the Advisory Council on Science and Technology (ACST) which commissioned and issued three reports on various aspects of nanotechnology (see chart). The ACST was originally asked to examine nanotechnology last year by then Liberal Industry minister David Emerson. But its work was caught up in the recent federal election and change in government. The ACST has prepared a final confidential report which will be submitted to the new Industry minister, Maxime Bernier, but it's unknown what action, if any, will be taken.
|"The Panel was particularly impressed with the role and activities of NanoQuebec, which represents the most focused and successful regional initiative in facilitating linkages and leveraging capabilities and investments ... Alberta has the beginnings of such a coordinated network centred around the recently established ... NINT and the University of Alberta. BC has also begun to develop a network in this area." -International Scientific Review Panel
"Bernier will have the lead on this and it will depend on what he wants to do with S&T in general," says NSA executive director Kevin Fitzgibbons. "Other countries have a significant head start so we need to be smart and pull all the elements together. We also have to do outreach to industry. The (international) expert panel said industry needs to have capacity to adapt these things but it's hard to predict where the opportunities will be. There needs to be a market response."
QUEBEC TAKING LEADERSHIP ROLE
The efforts of the NSA and ACST have been a long time coming and many view them as a belated response to a situation which has been increasing in urgency for the past several years. One province that has not waited for the federal government to get its act together is Quebec, which launched NanoQuebec in 2001 to move provincial nanotech R&D and commercial activity forward. NanoQuebec re-organized in 2003 to tie the province's leadership in nanotech R&D to industrial development and has been signing a series of MOUs with industrial sectors such as forestry and energy (R$, March 30 & June 2/05). It has also signed international cooperation agreements with New York State and France and is in negotiations to establish links to Japan.
"The NanoQuebec model is to bring universities together to develop coherent strategies and bring new components and processes into the industrial field," says NanoQuebec DG Dr Robert Nault. "We're now working on establishing a nano-biotechnology hub in the Montreal area."
Overview of Government Supported Nanotechnology Research Funding in Canada
Office of the National Science Advisor (NSA)
Assessment of Canadian Research Strengths in Nanotechnology - Report of the International Scientific
Office of the National Science Advisor
An Overview of Nanotechnology in Canada - Environmental Scan of the Current State of Play
Prime Minister's Advisory Council on Science and Technology (ACST)
An Overview of Nanotechnology in Canada -
The Canadian Industrial Capacity to Absorb Nanotechnology
Prime Minister's Advisory Council on Science and Technology (ACST)
An Overview of Nanotechnology in Canada -
A Review and Analysis of Foreign Nanotechnology Strategies
All reports available at www.acst-ccst.gc.ca
Nault says that the nano-biotech hub would be a prime candidate for one of the national centres recommended by the International Panel. Nault continues to work closely with federal officials in Ottawa, but he adds that NanoQuebec is not standing still while the country waits for a national strategy. "I don't really know where they (the federal government) are heading. They seems to be having difficulties in achieving a national strategy. It's not clear why."
In the works is a meeting with representatives of other regions that have strong concentrations of nanotech R&D. Nault says such a meeting would be in line with NanoQuebec's approach of listening to those in the field when making strategic decisions.
NanoQuebec has also developed a new business plan for the next three years that requires $45 million to implement. It is seeking $20 million from the Quebec government, an equal amount from Ottawa and another $5 million from non-governmental sources. That compares to $16.3 million it received in its first five years of existence, with the bulk coming from Valorisation-Recherche Qu‚bec.
"Some universities think it's too early to focus but I don't agree," says Nault. "We need to find out where we have the best capability to transfer our research into industrial activities."
The ACST report on Canadian Industrial Capacity to Absorb Nanotechnology says the NanoQuebec model "could potentially be implemented in other nanotech clusters with regional adaptations" and notes its success as a fourth pillar organization. The report concludes that NanoQuebec is correct in its focus on traditional industrial sectors.
"(Nanotechnology's) greatest impact will likely be felt in its application to traditional industry sectors rather than the commerce it will generate," states the report.
WEAK RECEPTOR CAPACITY
Despite the efforts of NanoQuebec and others to establish links to industry, there is relatively little commercial nanotech activity in Canada. There are fewer than 100 nano-tech firms and virtual no large companies are conducting nanotech R&D. That's because Canada has little presence in the sectors that have become early adopters of nanotech - semiconductor fabrication, the military and high-end biomedical devices.
"There's no real presence, no drivers," says Dr Neil Gordon, president of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance (CNBA). "We have to go beyond a series of university-based projects with some business creation. We need a more concentrated effort to create businesses."
Gordon says CNBA is doing its part to establish a nascent industrial base for nanotech. It recently evolved from an advocacy organization to a hands-on company with its involvement in the creation of the country's first fabrication facility for commercializing nanoscale innovations (R$, June 1/05). In conjunction with NRC's Industrial Materials Institute (IMI) in Boucherville PQ, CNBA is working to bring a NanoImprint Lithography prototype fabrication centre (NIL FAB) on line some time next year. The project is on hold until specialized equipment from Austria is built and delivered.
ONTARIO NANOTECH STRATEGY EMERGING
CNBA has also established the Ontario NanoExchange in Toronto, with offices in the MaRS Discovery District and is working closely with the provincial government to establish links with the NIL FAB in Boucherville.
"Ontario has the applications and it has more researchers and universities that focus on nanotechnology than anywhere else in Canada. It's an untapped resource that could put Ontario on the national stage," says Gordon. "We're working with the Ontario Centres of Excellence in the areas of photonics, materials and environmental to come up with a vision for Ontario. It's a bottom way of establishing a national strategy."
Gordon says Ontario's decision to establish a Ministry of Research and Innovation with the premier overseeing the province's research file is a "brilliant move" that follows similar initiatives in Texas and California. And he confident that the NRC will be able to play a leading role in developing critical mass in nanotech and build bridges between government- and university-based R&D and industry. Such an effort could tap into the expertise resident in the 54 Canada Research Chairs in nanotech-related research.
"NINT is more long-term and focused on science applications that won't generate spin-offs anytime soon. But it's just one of 12 NRC institutes involved in nanotech," he says.
The NRC is currently working on a horizontal strategy and agency-wide program for nanotech to coordinate the activities of those 12 institutes, in line with observations made by the International Panel.