Oral evidence - Dr. Charles M. Vest, President, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This evidence was taken on December 11th 2003. The summary has been prepared by the secretariat and sent to Dr Vest for comment. At the time of going to press no comments had been received.

Nanoscience and nanotechnology
Dr. Vest began by stating that nanotechnology cannot be defined as a single thing. He noted that young researchers are particularly enthused by nanoscale science at MIT, and by working in the multidisciplinary teams necessary to drive forward nanoscience and nanotechnology. He sees progress in nanotechnology to be part revolution and part evolution of existing technologies. He believed the revolutionary aspect of nanotechnology has and will come about through new devices and techniques which have arisen as a result of the development of enabling technologies for investigating materials at the atomic and molecular scale. His opinion was that the origins of nanotechnology are rooted in these enabling technologies. When asked about the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology, Dr. Vest was keen to note that he saw this as the clearest and most exciting characteristic of nanotechnology, the implications of which would have a great influence on education and research.

Funding of nanotechnology
When asked whether he thought that the increased levels of international funding of nanotechnology were driven by perceived benefits, or by one-upmanship amongst countries, Dr. Vest believed that there was general belief within Congress in the prospects of nanotechnology, and the potential economic benefits it could offer. He also felt that there was an opinion that while the US nanotechnology science base is currently on a par with the rest of the world, and that significant funding needed to be employed in order to ensure competitive advantage. In addition, he stated that alongside investment in science and technology, there is also a responsibility to invest in the social, health, environmental and ethical issues that may surround nanotechnology. Dr. Vest was also asked whether suitable assessment metrics existed for the economic impacts of nanotechnology, and he believed that these were currently being worked out. He noted that industry was not yet ready to invest heavily in nanotechnology, and felt that this technology was an appropriate expenditure of public funds.

The discussion then turned to the hype surrounding nanotechnology. Dr. Vest was asked if he thought that in some cases, scientists were responsible for much of the hype that has been seen in the media. He noted the motivations of some scientists to secure funding, but also pointed out the need not to get trapped in hyperbole whilst at the same time expressing the excitement of possible developments in a rapidly progressing field. Dr. Vest also noted that the future is notoriously difficult to predict, particularly where technology is concerned. He believed that with the bringing together of the physical and life sciences, prompted by nanotechnology, there was a reasonable probability of success in producing new devices and products, and that significant breakthroughs were also likely. He did not believe though that nanotechnology would result in radical changes to the way we live our lives.

Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology
Dr. Vest then introduced the Soldier Nanotechnology programme at MIT. This programme is in conjunction with the US army and industry, and its goal is to develop “Nanotechnology-enabled survivability capabilities for the soldier and others.” Unusually for MIT, this programme is focussed on end products through the development of basic and applied research. Around 150 research personnel will be housed in a dedicated facility with shared offices and laboratories to encourage cross-fertilization. Dr. Vest also noted that as the project is not classified, it is open to students. As such, he saw the project as a great platform for learning some basic lessons on the development and production of nanotechnology-enabled materials and devices.