Federal beacons for nanotechnology RD ST health and national security

Within this overarching social policy, three principal interrelated federal agendas stand out as beacons, being S&T, health care and national security. Each is associated with a particular funding agency and mandate, and positions nanotechnology within larger institutional agendas. Basic and applied research occurs as a distinctly pronounced activity and focus, as an extension of existing discipline specific research into the nanoscale but not necessarily called 'nanotechnology', and in special programs targeted to pursue specific strategic goals such as national security.

Research announced as nanotechnology: S&T and NINT

The principal beacon for research directly announced as nanotechnology is the NRC and NSERC S&T agenda setting out funding priorities. These are embodied in NINT and other NRC institutions researching at the nanoscale. Basic nanoscale research is conducted for the main purpose of exploring the quantum regime and discovering the unique chemical, mechanical, electrical and optical properties at the nanoscale. Once discovered, research will focus on exploiting these properties into technologies and applications.

Extending existing research into the nanoscale: health care and the life sciences

A high visibility and principal beacon in extending traditional and discipline-specific research into the nanoscale are the health and life sciences, which targets the majority of basic and applied R&D with specific health-related goals. Because of its central role in nanotechnology R&D, and the value Canadians place on health care, I present it in some detail. It is also a well-developed and organized area, and exemplifies the benefit of a strategic approach in an applied context.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)4 is the principal funding agency for health research, established in June 2000 under the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Act, and replacing the former Medical Research Council of Canada. It reports to Parliament through the Minister of Health. CIHR is a collaborative network comprising 13 virtual institutes5 that focus on identifying research needs and priorities for specific health areas or populations, and develops strategic initiatives to address them. CIHR takes a problem-based and multidisciplinary approach to health challenges in four areas, being biomedical, clinical, health systems and services, and population and public health. Until 2004 CIHR did not have any specific nanotechnology programs. Now several broad research areas come together under the broad rubric of 'regenerative medicine' and 'nanomedicine' which CIHR defines as:

The design, synthesis, or application of materials, devices, or technologies in the nanometer-scale for the basic understanding, diagnosis, and/or treatment of disease. Key to this definition is that phenomena and materials at the nanometer-scale are known to have properties that are uniquely attributable to that scale length . . . Many current research initiatives in the development of novel techniques and methodologies relevant to biomedical research and clinical practice do not necessarily fit within this strict definition. However, these various microscale technologies are still relevant for nanomedicine, and are included within the scope of this announcement. Some examples could include, but are not limited to: cellular imaging, biophotonics, drug delivery and targeting, and molecular characterization of cellular processes. (CIHR, 2004)

This broad definition encompasses specific research areas such as gene therapy (correcting gene expression responsible for disease development), stem cell research (including pluripotent embryonic stem cells and post-natal adult stem cells), tissue engineering (stimulating the renewal of body tissues or restoration of function through the use of natural or bioengineered materials), and rehabilitative science (functional restoration of processes or plasticity of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves and muscles). These and other activities focus on applications in numerous areas, including cancer and promoting recovery after stroke, injury or disease.

Special programmes

Nanotechnology serves Canada's national security agenda articulated in the national security policy Securing an Open Society: Canada's National Security Policy (Government of Canada, 2001) in part through CRTI (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Research & Technology Initiative).6 CRTI, established in 2001 with an initial five year funding envelope valued at CAD$165M, is an ongoing program mandated to create a national network of Lab Clusters and fund science and technology projects related to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) response and preparedness. Many projects funded involve microfluidic, imaging and testing devices at the nanoscale. National security research priorities include biosecurity (plant and animal heath, food, water and crops), lab cluster management; collective command, control, communications, coordination and information (C4I) capabilities for CBRN planning and response; prevention, surveillance and alert capabilities; immediate reaction and near-term consequence management capabilities; longer-term consequence management issues; criminal investigation capabilities, S&T dimensions of risk assessment; and public confidence and psycho-social factors. Other dimensions of national security include border security and critical infrastructure protection, which have roles for advanced technologies based on nanotechnologies.

These and other R&D activities occur within a variety of institutional settings and in accordance with an array of funding and policy agendas. The determining features in naming R&D activities as 'nanotechnology' lie in institutional frameworks, not the actual science itself.

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