Thank you for the invitation to comment on the report of a workshop with scientists
and engineers. My qualifications to provide this feedback include a degree in
Microsystems and Nanotechnology, considerable experience of technology review
in industry and being myself a chartered engineer.
Workshops by their nature are difficult events from which to draw a comprehensive and definitive report, being perhaps more suitable as a means for discovering areas of agreement and differences and for assigning further actions that can lead towards a report. This workshop appears to have been no different and in consequence the report could be improved in a number of general ways in addition to specific issues within it.
Because these comments concentrate on areas of the workshop which I think
can be improved, please bear in mind that my overall impression is more positive
than it may appear.
I would start with the title. 'Nanotechnology: views of Scientists and Engineers' promises too much and does a disservice both to those who attended the workshop and to the vast majority who did not. A more accurate variant would be 'Nanotechnology: some of the views of a few Scientists and Engineers' but in my opinion a better solution would be to combine the present title and subtitle into 'Report of a Workshop exploring the Views of Scientists and Engineers on Nanotechnology'.
The style of writing within the report is very variable, presumably as a result of different sections being written by different authors. I believe the best way to address this issue would be to assign an editor to ensure the integrity of the document; Paul Holister's name jumps out from the list of attendees as someone who is eminently qualified to fill this role.
I don't believe that a one-day workshop is the best way to answer the first question - 'what is the current state of knowledge in this field, and where is research going?'. This is especially the case in such a broad interdisciplinary field. I believe a better way to answer this question would be to refer to existing reviews published in journals or other media, and if necessary to commission such reviews. A better question to scientists and engineers would then be to ask them to recommend specific reviews and to ask them of any specific exceptions or additions they would wish to make.
Consequently, I don't believe the report of the workshop is particularly helpful
in answering the first question. I have noted a few specific omissions in my
The second question may have been more useful but only if participants had been advised of it in advance so they could research the answer. From the patchiness of the report, it appears that they were not pre-warned and instead a variant of Kip's game was played. Again, there are many existing lists of current and future applications of the technology and perhaps a more valuable use of the scientists' and engineers' time would be to seek their opinion on the validity of these lists and on probable timescales and obstacles.
MEMS, micromachining and related technologies and materials are mentioned a number of times in the report. I believe these technologies, as opposed to NEMS, fall outside the scope of the investigation and their inclusion detracts from the quality and impact of the report.
If there are specific applications that are relevant, they need to be made clearer.
Nanoengineering and Measurement
Typo: 'Scanning Probe Microscopy' should read 'Scanning Tunneling Microscopy'.
The whole class of optical techniques should also be mentioned in the section on metrology and scanning probe microscopy. Interferometry, SNOM and the many variants of optical traps (e.g. tweezers and optical force microscopy) all have applications in this field, for example.
Nanofabrication techniques, which I believe were part of this group's remit, are hardly mentioned at all. This is a major omission.
The fabrication technologies most often used for MEMS are certainly not waste and solvent free.
A categorisation by dimensionality is reported but as far as I can tell nothing
is said as regards to the state of knowledge in the field or the direction of
research. As I have already stated, I believe this question would best be answered
by reviews rather than workshop.
The important points about the importance of surface effects and the lack of knowledge (equals opportunity?!) of electrical transport properties both deserve more emphasis.
The comment about the unknown fate of sunscreens would perhaps be better placed in the health, safety, environmental and social (ethical) section.
I do not see any reference to the importance of self-assembly techniques nor to the importance of research into control and design of aperiodic materials. Photonics (see next section) is one major area that will benefit from the ability to produce such highly-structured materials but there are many others.
Micromachined silicon sensors are not, of themselves, nanotechnology although
there are many sensor designs that do incorporate elements of nanotechnology
as well as make use of microfabraction. The nanotechnological sensors need to
be singled out.
Lumping fuel cells and photovoltaic applications anonymously under 'environmental drivers' whilst self-cleaning windows are singled out for special mention is perverse.
The comment on protein misfolding is meaningless as it stands. It should either be deleted or expanded to explain what is meant and why it is important.
Electronics and optoelectronics
Photonics was explicitly assigned to this group but it is not mentioned at all in the report. There is a strong overlap with materials but even there it is barely mentioned, perhaps because it was assigned to this group. I believe that photonics is an important area that should be included because of an existing research base and a strong likelihood of important products in the near future.
There is a statement that 10% of world trade and 1% of all R&D is in IT and electronics, made in the context of the semiconductor industry. Please remember that IT includes software, a major element, and that electronics includes many components other than semiconductors. I believe this is another case where reference to carefully prepared and reviewed existing work is preferable to opinions offered from memory.
Plastic electronics is mentioned. Is this because it is clear to the participants that research in this area is directed towards nanotechnology? If so, then more appropriate examples than those given would be useful, since those given appear to stress low cost which is unlikely to either need or benefit greatly from a reduction in size.
Bionanotechnology and nanomedicine
Health, safety, environmental and social issues
There is evidence in the document that individual's concerns, relating perhaps to their continuing ability to work in the field, were overriding an objective consideration of the issues in some cases. This bias is obviously not desirable.
I feel that the suggestion that public fears are best answered by science education in schools and universities is wholly unrealistic, I believe. There are at least two reasons. Firstly, the general population is not at school or university and will not be exposed to this education. Secondly, education is not presently able to interest most students in science at all.
I believe that one of the breakout groups was accurate in its surmise that popular culture is what counts, so I believe that is where efforts should be directed. A continuing effort to publicise positive results of nanoscience and nanotechnology and specifically to 'brand' them as such is necessary to counteract the natural publicity generated by negative consequences.
Other Topics - Roadmap
The possibility of a roadmap for nanotechnology was mentioned on more than one occasion and it is a subject that interests me. There are existing roadmaps for semiconductors and optoelectronics as stated in the report and there is also the EU roadmap for nanoelectronics. But I believe roadmaps covering other specific areas would also be useful. It would be challenging to produce an overall roadmap for such a broad field but anything that can be achieved in this direction would be useful. It might help to map out the interactions and especially dependencies between fields in this endeavour. I would be happy to be involved in any such effort and volunteer to coordinate efforts.