a relatively new scientific discipline, many academic
institutions and public authorities are still in the
process of assessing teaching and training needs in
the nanosciences. So what is already in place, and what
does the user community actually want from university
graduates in terms of new knowledge? Participants at
a workshop in Brussels on 14 April sought answers to
Addressing the training needs
of nanoscience and nanotechnology is complicated by
the fact that it is not a scientific discipline in
its own right, but cuts across many other disciplines.
A completely new approach is therefore required at
universities. The traditional structure of universities,
where, for example, a physics student is based in
the physics faculty and rarely if ever has any contact
with the biology students, has to change.
This is also the approach that
industry would like to see, according to Tim Harper,
CEO of Cientifica and Executive Director of the European
NanoBusiness Association. 'Employers don't really
want graduates with a first degree in nanoscience.
They prefer a solid grounding in science with a conversion
course - a Masters or a PhD - afterwards,' he said.
A less specialised approach
is also favoured by the European Commission. While
the traditional approach to education can be depicted
as an inverted pyramid, with the breadth of study
getting narrower as the researcher progresses, head
of the Commission's unit on research training networks
Bruno Schmitz outlined the need for an hourglass approach
to nano training, with the breadth of study widening
again as the researcher gains in experience.
Although the number of science
graduates is decreasing, and ironically at a time
when, as Dr Harper highlighted, technology is playing
an increasingly important role in our lives, more
and more courses are emerging in the areas of nanoscience
Mark Morrison from the Institute
of Nanotechnology in the UK informed participants
that while most EU countries are establishing specialised
courses in these fields, the market is dominated by
the UK, Germany, France and Denmark. An increasing
number of e-learning courses on nanoscience and nanotechnology
are also being established, although obstacles such
as concerns about standards, a lack of financial support,
and internal resistance from some universities is
slowing their growth.
It is not just a question of
producing more graduates, but of producing better
graduates, said Dr Harper. With this in mind, the
European NanoBusiness Association carried out a survey
among companies using nanoscience or nanotechnology
earlier this year in order to assess their needs.
Most claimed that it is difficult to recruit people
with the right skills, and many thought that this
represents an urgent problem - 33 per cent of respondents
indicated that they expect nanotechnology to have
an effect on their business within the next year.
Dr Harper also highlighted
the gap between academia and industry as an additional
factor impacting upon businesses. 'Europe has no shortage
of academic institutions working on nanoscience, so
why are we still less competitive? There is still
something missing. Most universities have technology
transfer offices, but how many include basic entrepreneurial
skills. We need to repair the links between academia
and industry,' he said.
It is difficult for academics
to spot commercial opportunities if they are not familiar
with business, Dr Harper said, adding the warning:
'The problem is urgent and will only get worse if
we don't start addressing it.'
The focus should not shift
entirely to the applied end of the science, to nanotechnology
rather than nanoscience however. The hunt for commercial
opportunities must not mean an end to basic research,
said Dr Harper.
EU support for nanoscience
and nanotechnology is set to continue. Under the Sixth
Framework Programme (FP6), 1.429 billion euro was
available for Nanotechnologies and nanosciences, knowledge-based
multifunctional materials and new production processes
and devices, and this figure is set to increase under
FP7. 'Nanosciences, nanotechnologies, materials and
new production technologies' has already been outlined
as a research priority in the Commission's proposals
for the programme.
Support will also continue
for training in nanoscience and nanotechnology under
the EU's Marie Curie programme. Since 1994 the Commission
has already invested 61.9 million euro in this area
and funded 1379 person years. These figures are guaranteed
to increase before the end of FP6 as schemes have
so far only been funded under the first call for proposals.
For further information on
the EU's nanoscience and nanotechnology initiatives,
Remarks: The brochure 'Nanotechnology:
innovation for tomorrow's world', published by the
European Commission, is now available in seven languages,
and will soon be made available in another 16 languages
at the reference above.