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Austrian NANO Initiative: Impressions and Experiences from Scientists

bridges vol. 14, July 2007 / Nanotechnology Focus
by Peter Ertl

with background information on
The Austrian NANO Initiative - Small Country with Strong Expertise

Nanotechnology and its applications in life sciences, medicine, electronics, and the environment is regarded as one of the key technologies of the 21st century. Nanotechnology promises major breakthroughs in areas such as materials, electronics, medicine, energy, environment, and biotechnology, as well as information technology. The establishment of a number of highly endowed funding programs promoting research and technology development in Europe, the US, and Asia emphasizes the great expectations placed on nanotechnology. In addition, in January 2006 during the UK Presidency of the EU, an Independent Expert Group recommended that 3% of the Gross Domestic Product be invested in research, and also indicated that nanotechnology is one of the most promising research areas for economic development and innovation
(http://ec.europa.eu/invest-in-research/pdf/download_en/aho_report.pdf).

The potential impact of nanotechnology on European society as a whole is well known, and long-term strategies are essential for the promotion of nanotechnological research activities in Austria. Because of my position as a staff scientist at the Nano-System-Technologies division of ARC-Seibersdorf Research in Austria, bridges invited me to comment on the Austrian Nanotechnology landscape. I will summarize my understanding of past, present, and future nano-activities in Austria, as well as my personal impressions as a researcher in this emerging field.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} For many years, several Austrian research institutions have conducted outstanding R&D activities in different areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology. For instance, the Institute of Solid State Electronics at Vienna University of Technology has been well-established in the field of semiconductor-based nanoelectronics since the mid-'90s. The Center for NanoBiotechnology (University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna) also has had strong research activities in molecular nanotechnology since the late '80s. Another example is the Austrian Center for Electron Microscopy (established in 1951), which still plays a leading role in electron- and ion beam characterization of advanced materials. Despite these early and successful research efforts, Austria has never achieved the critical mass necessary to become a world-class "nanotechnology country." Austria's shortcoming was a direct result of inadequate funding appropriations from responsible ministries and funding agencies. In fact, in the last decade, Austria has fallen behind in several high-technology fields, compared to other European countries such as Switzerland and Sweden. Only after becoming a member state of the European Community was Austria forced to respond to these R&D deficits. In 2001 the Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development put forward strategy "2.5% + plus," which includes "Developing Strengths - Promoting Emerging Fields for the Future." As I understand it today, this initiative was based on an extensive discussion with academic and industrial players, as well as representatives from various ministries, Federal States, and funding institutions. The outcome of this exchange was the Austrian NANO Initiative, created in 2004 for targeted support and funding of the emerging field of nanotechnology.

The NANO Initiative: networks and research clusters

Today the Austrian NANO Initiative is a national program for funding research and technology development under the Federal Ministry of Transport, Innovation and Technology (BMVIT) in cooperation with the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Labor (BMWA), the Federal Ministry for Science and Research (BMWF), and Federal States. The objective of the NANO Initiative is to promote regional and national core competencies in the field of nanotechnology. This was to be accomplished (a) by establishing nano-networks to link the Austrian research community together, and (b) by setting up research project clusters (RPCs) to support new nano-related R&D activities.

One research cluster is NANONET-Styria, which was founded to focus on expertise existing at the Joanneum Research, the University of Leoben, Graz University of Technology, and the University of Graz. Some of its R&D activities include nanocoatings, nanopowders, nanocomposites, organic opto-electronics and sensor technology, bionanotechnology, and nanoanalysis. Major goals include the development of nanostructured materials for drug delivery and the advancement of analytical methods.

Another large research group with the objective of organizing and stimulating networking activities in the field of nanofabrication is called Micro@Nanofabrication Austria (MNA). The goal of MNA is to promote the commercialization of nanotechnology; the group consists of the Universities of Vienna (UW, VUT, BOKU), Leoben, Graz, and Linz, and the Austrian Research Centers (ARC), the Materials Center Leoben, Christian Doppler Laboratory of Surface Optics, as well as industry (IMS-Nanofabrication, EV-Group, and Böhler-Uddeholm). These institutions cooperate to develop novel photonic crystals and photonic structures, new nanoelectronic devices, and nanosensors for biochemical and biomedical applications.

A third research cluster is the West Austrian Initiative for Nano Networking (W-INN), which was set up to provide and promote the infrastructure necessary to develop nanotechnology in Western Austria. W-INN partners include the University of Innsbruck, the Innsbruck Medical University, HITT Health Information Technologies Tyrol, the Lonimed GmbH, rho-BeSt coating Hartstoffbeschichtungs GmbH, Sandoz Kundl GmbH, D. Swarovski & Co., and Thiomatrix GmbH. W-INN also provides training and invests in raising public awareness to encourage the acceptance of nanotechnology.

Since 2004, all three of these research clusters have worked at some point on seven major research projects involving up to 15 industrial and academic partners per project:

· A major project to develop diamond-coating of surfaces for biological and electronic applications (NaDiNe - Nano-Diamond Network)

· A project to develop new organic semiconductor devices (ISOTEC - Integrated Organic Sensor and Optoelectronics Technologies)

· A project to develop new therapeutic solutions for diabetes and Alzheimer's disease (NANO-HEALTH- Nanostructured Material for Drug Targeting, Release and Imaging)

· A project involving manufacturing technologies to design multifunctional surfaces and interfaces (NANOCOAT -Development of Nanostuctured Coatings for the Design of Multifunctional Surfaces)

· A project to develop biocompatible nanostructures, polymers, and nanocomposites (NSI- Nanostructured Surfaces and Interfaces)

· A project for the development of novel photonic devices (PLATON - Processing Light: Advanced Technologies for Optical Nanostructures)

· A project to develop photocatalytic nanolayers for self-cleaning of surfaces (PHONAS- photocatalytic nanolayers)

Further details of individual research activities and accomplishments can be found on their respective Internet sites.

Personal experiences as a scientist with the Nano-Initiative

Overall, the Austrian Nano-Initiative has done a great job of promoting nanotechnology. However, many of my colleagues and I share a few concerns about nanotechnology funding in Austria.

My first concern involves the common practice of predominantly funding established, low-risk research groups. This funding practice makes it very hard for new and young research groups to get started and for new ideas to emerge.

Another concern is the untimely manner in which funding is made available. For instance, PLATON is a research activity coordinated by the Vienna University of Technology. PLATON consists of four scientific and three industrial partners, including Austrian Research Centers (ARC), and is based on six projects that merge various activities in the field of photonics. The overall goal of PLATON is the development of new photonic devices for real-world applications. The initial funding application for PLATON was submitted in June 2005, resulting in a positive response and approval from the funding agency in December 2005. Hearings regarding specific project details were finally conducted in October 2006, but funding for the projects began in March 2007. By the time this funding was made available, some aspects of the proposed research had already been accomplished by other international research groups. Time is of the essence in today's fast-moving research landscape, and we have to be aware that Austrian scientists are also competing with research groups in the US, Asia, and the rest of the EU. Perhaps Austria's funding shortcomings relate to the fact that there is no single R&D ministry responsible for administering funds. Instead, three different ministries are involved in funding R&D, and currently the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and the Austrian Research Funding Agency (FFG) are jointly managing nano-related projects.

My third concern relates to lack of a long-term funding commitment at three levels: a) the level of individual projects, b) the level of infrastructure development, and c) the level of national scientific interest.

Individual projects: Currently, individual projects are funded for only two years, with an option of a two-year extension. However, funding for the NaDiNe project was turned down after only two years of ongoing and apparently successful work, without any detailed explanation being offered for the sudden change. As could be expected, the NaDiNe incident created a high level of uncertainty among Austrian scientists whose research efforts and success depend on stable funding to reach their long-term research goals.

Infrastructure development
: Another important concern involves access to state-of-the-art infrastructure aimed to facilitate the commercialization of laboratory-based research. A national nanofabrication facility that is accessible to academia, research institutions, and industry alike would significantly increase Austria's competitiveness by promoting technology transfer and would encourage the establishment of start-up companies otherwise lacking adequate financial resources.

National level: Funding uncertainties at the national level threaten the entire future of nanotechnology in Austria. For instance, research funding provided by the Austrian NANO Initiative (FFG) declined from €11.5 million to €9.75 million after its first year. Despite a budget increase from €10.5 to €12.0 million for 2007, funding of existing research networks will end in two to three years and it is unclear how these research groups will fend for themselves. Even recent efforts by leading scientists to create an Austrian nanotechnology platform by merging existing regional networks did not receive funding from the Austrian Research Funding Agency (FFG). The main purpose of the platform was to establish an operative network to better represent nano-activities within and outside Europe and, once again, to make Austria more competitive.

It is true that much has been accomplished since 2001 for the promotion and facilitation of nano-related research activities in Austria. The establishment of regional networks and research clusters has worked out well for Austria, and some of the great research currently underway reflects that advance. However, the research clusters are only the first step in the promotion of nanotechnology in Austria. To fully reap the potential benefits of nanotechnology, long-term research strategies must be developed and implemented. Part of these long-term strategies should involve the fostering of new ideas by supporting younger researchers. A timely and long-term funding commitment is needed to ensure the successful completion of individual projects, as well as the continuation of nanotechnology as a scientific field of national value and excellence.

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The author, Peter Ertl, is a staff scientist at the Nano-System-Technologies division of ARC-Seibersdorf Research.

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