Breadth Depth and Academic Nano Niches

W.M. Tolles, Consultant

The report to the President titled Science: The Endless Frontier (Bush 1945) ushered in a period of rapid growth in research for 2-3 decades. This was stimulated further by the launch of Sputnik and programs to explore the moon. Over the past 56 years, research has moved from an environment where there was unquestioned acceptance of academic-style research by both academia and industry to an environment in which industry, in its effort to maintain profit margins in the face of global competition, has rejected the academic model of research and now focuses on short-term objectives. The need for industry to hire new blood and to generate new ideas is a major stimulus for cooperation between industry and academia. Academia has mixed reactions to these more recent trends. Universities are concerned about a loss of some independence and freedom to pursue new ideas in conjunction with industry, primarily due to the proprietary nature of maturing research/development. The pressures on academia to "demonstrate relevance" have continued for decades. In the search for "relevance," the concept of nanotechnology has emerged to satisfy a large community of researchers in both academia and industry.

The discovery of a new suite of experimental tools (beginning with scanning tunneling microscopy) with which to explore ever smaller features, to the level of the atom, reopened the doors joining the progress of academia to that of industry. The nanotechnology concept fulfilled the pressures of both the commercial world (pursuing continuation of the fruits of miniaturization) and academia (pursuing opportunities to research the many new pathways opened by these tools). The umbrella term "nanotechnology" covers programs already underway in both communities, thus giving a stamp of approval to many existing efforts. The goals and expectations of nanotechnology have been chosen in such a way that the march of the science and technology will yield new systems in many technological markets. There is little chance of disappointing the public (and Congress), due to the productivity of these endeavors. Yet, there appears to be more to the umbrella term than simply a new label for existing research directions. It has generated a new stimulus for academic pursuits in subtle ways that will have a lasting impact on our educational system.

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