Responses to questionnaire on nanotechnology





Julia Hinde
First Secretary Science and Technology
British High Commission, Ottawa

1. Estimates of levels of investment in nanotechnology

When compiling this paper in September 2003, overall figures for Canadian Government spend on nanotechnology research were very hard to come by. Several groups in Canada are currently working on definitive figures (in response to an OECD inquiry) and I will supply these as soon as they become available.

Funding is processed by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund, Alberta Science and Research Authority, NanoQuebec, National Institute of Nanotechnology.

Sums are low. According to Neil Gordon of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance, most Canadian nanotechnology companies are small start-ups, with excellent technology, but looking for access into the market.

Balance between basic and applied research
Again here, statistics are hard to come by. However, there is a clear overall impression – confirmed by those at the NSERC Nano Innovation Platform - that the majority of publicly funded work has so far been at the basic end of the scale, not necessarily with a clear commercial outcome.

2. On going research

In academia
Several Canadian universities have grown active nanotechnology teams. The major Canadian academic centres include:

Other universities with nanotech efforts include University of Western Ontario (Peter Norton), McMaster, Sherbrooke, Dalhousie and the University of British Columbia.

In Research Centres:

NINT’s mandate is to conduct molecular and nanoscale technology research, development and commercialisation focusing on life sciences, energy and materials, and ICT.

NINT is still at a very early stage and is currently (September 2003) leaderless (having lost its first head to the Steacie Institute (see below)). A new C$40 million building is under construction, including laboratories for chemical and biochemical synthesis and analysis of material structure at the atomic scale, as well as a Class 1000 clean room for the production of nanostructured systems. In total, it will boast 4,000 square metres of fabrication and microscopy facilities.

The Government of Canada has committed an additional C$12 million a year for operating costs, beginning in year six. NINT will ultimately house up to 150 permanent staff and is intended to become a focus for nanotech in Canada. Several recruits have so far been attracted to the centre from the US.

In other federal Government laboratories:

According to the Canadian Nano Business Alliance, a non Government group representing nano business in Canada, there are between 75 and 150 Canadian companies working in nano, MEMs and microfluidics. Most are small and are concentrated in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton.

The NanoBusiness Alliance is pushing for a Canadian National Nanotechnology Initiative along the lines of that seen in the US. It is also working to create clusters of nano-material companies across Canada.

Montréal is hosting a Nanomaterials Crossroads conference in October 2003. Speakers include some of Canada’s key nanotech academics and some companies, as well as international players. Participating Canadian companies include Nanox - autocatalysts, Nanometrix and Tekna Plasma Systems.

With C$10 million of start-up funding from Valorisation Recherche Quebec, an initiative of the Quebec Government, six of the provinces universities (McGill, Universite de Montreal, Ecole Polytechnique, Universite de Sherbrooke, Universite Laval and INRS-Energie, Materiaux et Telecommunications) have come together within the network.

Objectives include the consolidation of research, growth of the research community, innovative new research, training of personnel, networking and linkages, and fostering of technology transfer and economic outcomes.

Nano-Quebec has been involved in the creation of state-of-the-art shared facilities at universities across the province. These include facilities for the full range of fabrication, synthesis and characterisation techniques. These facilities are used by researchers throughout the province, including businesses (on a fee-for-use basis). About 55 per cent of Nano-Quebec’s funding will be used to support infrastructure development.

NanoQuebec uses about 35 per cent of its funding to support research in nanomaterials, nanoelectronics and nanophotonics, nanobiotechnology and nanopharmaceuticals, and self assembly. This money has been used to support the hiring of more than 30 post docs. Also, as a result of Nano-Quebec’s initiatives, some 90 or so new faculty have been hired in the province in the area of nanotech.

The third area of Nano-Quebec’s work has been in promoting networking between nano researchers in the province, and then with outside networks.

Nano-Quebec’s funding is secure through to 2005, after which its future is uncertain.

This includes between C$600,000 and C$700,000 annually to support a small number of high risk, high gain projects in nanoscience and nanotechnology that “will help put Canada on the nano world map”.

The remainder of the funding will be used for two purposes:

According to Grutter, there is a realisation within NSERC and the community that Canada lacks a national nanotech strategy. With a new Prime Minister to take the reins next year, preparing a strategy document now, outlining where Canada should be in nanotech, and how it might get there, is seen as crucial.

As part of that, Grutter is working to identify areas where Canada has particular strengths. According to Grutter, Canada’s strengths lie specifically in nano materials and nano-electronics/ photonics.

3. Ethical, health, safety or environmental impacts of nanotechnology

A small number of Canadian academics have begun to draw attention to the ethical and regulatory issues surrounding nanotechnology. At this stage the group looking at nanoethics is small and there are currently no funds specifically targeted for investigation of the ethical/ social/ environmental dimensions of nanotechnology. Rather, funding for such investigation, has, until now, tended to be alongside research on the science, with small components of grants being used to investigate the associated social or ethical impacts.

However, this is beginning to change. According to Tim Caulfield, Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, an effort is currently underway in Canada to build a nano forum, bringing together a range of law, economics, anthropology and ethics researchers to concentrate effort in the field of nanotechnology. The group is seeking funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR, MRC equivalent) which recently launched a call for proposals in emerging technologies.

He also stresses that NINT, the National Institute for Nanotechnology, has been very proactive in engaging discussion of the ethics of nanotechnology. NINT has set up a small initiative with the University of Alberta Law Ethics Institute and, according to Andy Gilliland, director of stakeholder relations at NINT, nanoethics is an “area of high priority”.

The following Canadian teams are investigating the social, ethical, health, safety or environmental impacts of nanotechnology:

4. Regulation of Nanotechnology

According to Tim Caulfield, Canada currently has no specific regulations to deal with applications of nanotechnology. However, there are relevant existing regulations in the health and environment sphere. Says Caulfield, Canada needs to decide what regulations apply and “whether there are unique things in nanotechnology which need some unique regulatory response”.

However, it seems that Canadian federal Government bodies are only now beginning to explore this area.

Industry Canada (DTI equivalent, the manufacturing industries branch) has recently pulled together a nanotech network, with representatives from a number of federal departments. Talk is now of a possible across –Government workshop in November to take forward ideas around regulation and ethical aspects of nanotechnology.

5. Media, Public, NGO interest

Media/ Public
A poll in September 18’s Globe and Mail (national newspaper) asked Canadians, “Should our Governments promote Canadian leadership in burgeoning nanotechnology research?” 88 per cent of the 1,000 responders thought so.

On a personal note, I found the whole notion of a poll on nanotechnology a little surprising as there has been relatively little coverage of the ethical/ social issues surrounding nanotechnology in the Canadian media (except for a short run of pieces at the launch of the “Mind the Gap” and “Big Down” reports). It should be noted that this poll appeared in the technology section of the paper alongside an article on nano-computers which rather glossed over concerns about a nanofuture spinning out of control, yet highlighted the relatively little being spent by the Canadian Government on nanotech (it suggested a figure of C$50 million).

According to Tim Caulfield, compared with issues such as genetics and stem cells, there has been little Canadian public or media reaction yet on the issue of nanotechnology. Michael Mehta explains further, “Generally Canadians are supportive of these things. They have a bit of a romantic phase. It takes an incident, normally not here, for people to be a bit more realistic.” Ian Kerr points out that, though there has been the occasional media article questioning the ethical issues around nanotechnology, the media has been more interested in asking whether nanotechnology is really the next industrial boom, and whether there is really something concrete there.

The ETC group is headquartered in Winnipeg, Canada. In its January 2003 report, the Big Down , the NGO called for “an immediate moratorium on commercial production of new nanomaterials”. According to Pat Mooney, executive director of ETC Canada Group, ETC continues to research in the field of “atomtech” and he continues to give seminars, including in the UK.