In March 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) held a symposium on assessing the economic impacts of nanotechnology, which was hosted by American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC. Lynn Bergeson announced the release of the symposium’s final report in her Sept. 16, 2013 posting on the Nanotechnology Now website.
The title of the final report published by the OECD is Symposium on Assessing the Economic Impact of Nanotechnology: Synthesis Report. I have excerpted some information including this introductory paragraph from the executive summary of this 81 pp report,
Governments have a fiscal and social responsibility to ensure that limited research and development resources are used wisely and cost-effectively in support of social, economic, and scientific aspirations. As a result of significant public and private investments in nanotechnology during the past decade and an expanding array of commercial applications, the field of nanotechnology has matured to the point of showing significant potential to help societies achieve the shared goal of improving efficiencies and accelerating progress in a range of economic sectors, including medicine, manufacturing, and energy. Countries that wish to promote the continued responsible development of nanotechnology will, however, need quantitative data on the economic impact of nanotechnology to guide further investment and policy decisions. Few widely accepted economic impact assessments have been conducted, however, and there are many questions regarding the best methodologies to be used. (p. 4)
The attendees considered the challenges associated with evaluating the impact of nanotechnology, some of which are common to emerging technologies in general and some or which are specific to nanotechnology (from the report),
The attendees also considered the question of a definition for nanotechnology. While operational definitions are developed at national or regional levels, e.g. for statistical or regulatory purposes, there are relatively few internationally agreed upon definitions or classifications for nanotechnology or its products and processes. Such definitions are essential for developing a methodology for an economic impact assessment and/or to facilitate data collection. Participants mentioned that definitions should be flexible so that they facilitate the development and valuation of the technology; they also noted that definitions might vary in different contexts or sectors.
Additional issues were raised:
Its multipurpose, enabling nature makes measuring the impact of nanotechnology difficult. It can be fundamental to a product’s key functionality (e.g. battery charge time or capacity) but ancillary to the value chain (E.g. represent a small portion of the final product or process). Nanotechnology is also likely to have a range of incremental impacts on goods and services as well as existing manufacturing techniques. This requires understanding the value added at different stages of the production chain.
Nanotechnology’s impact is often intermingled with that of many other interventions and technologies so that determining its precise role can be difficult.
The large and varied amount of data linked to nanotechnology development may lead to difficulties in cleaning and manipulating the data meaningfully.
Confidential business information and the proprietary nature of products and services may make it difficult to obtain information from industry. Moreover, it is not clear how a nanotechnology company or a company using nanotechnology is defined or defines itself or to what extent companies, universities and associate institutions are involved in exploiting and developing nanotechnology.
For now, data are mainly collected through surveys. It is important to weigh the benefits against the additional workload that surveys place on administrations, research institutes and industries. Information should be obtained efficiently, focusing on the data of greatest interest for assessing the value of the technology.
The nanotechnology policy landscape is evolving. It is important to consider non-specific, rather than nanotechnology-specific, funding strategies and policies when assessing economic impacts such as return on investment.
While certain issues may be resolved through improvements and over time, some restrict the ability to conduct valid nanotechnology impact assessments, such as the complex relationship between science, innovation and the economy; the interaction between public and private actors; the role of other factors in technology development and innovation; and the time lag between investments and their returns. (p. 8)
Of course the main issue being addressed was the development of tools/instruments to assess nanotechnology’s economic impact (from the report),
Some steps have been taken towards assessing the impact of nanotechnology. Examples mentioned during the symposium include the U.S. STAR METRICS database, which uses an input/output approach to determine the outputs of federal funding of science and technology, and Brazil’s Lattes system, in which researchers, students and institutions share information about their interests and backgrounds to facilitate information sharing and collaboration. The Lattes system is also intended to aid in the design of science, technology and innovation policies and to help understand the social and economic impacts of previous investments. DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, United Kingdom) values a given nanotechnology product in monetary terms against an incumbent and thus calculates additional value added over current technology.
Other valuation methods mentioned included the “traditional” cost/ benefit analysis (often accompanied by scenario development for immature technologies such as nanotechnology) and life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA addresses the impact of nanotechnology along the entire product value chain. It is important to conduct LCAs as early as possible in product development to define the full value of a product using nanotechnology. Value chain assessments can also help address the challenge of determining the role of nanotechnology in a final product, where economic value is most commonly assessed. (p. 9)
Participants recognised the difficulty of developing a “one size fits all” methodology. The data collected and the indicators and the methodologies chosen need to fit the situation. Precisely defining the objectives of the impact assessment is critical: “What do we want to measure?” (e.g. the impact of a specific nanotechnology investment or the impact of a nano-enabled replacement product on environmental performance). “What outcomes do we want from the analysis?” (e.g. monetary value and GDP growth or qualitative measures of environmental and social benefits).
Input indicators (e.g. R&D investment, infrastructure) are the easiest to collect; they provide information on the development of a technology in a given region, country or globally. Output indicators, such as patents and publications, provide information on the trajectories of a technology and on key areas of innovation. The most useful for policy makers are indicators of impact, but high-quality data, especially quantitative data, are difficult to collect. Indicators of impact provide a basis for assessing direct (market share, growth of companies, new products, wealth creation) and indirect impacts (welfare gains, consumer surplus). The economic and social impact of nanotechnology goes beyond what can be measured with existing statistics and traditional surveys. A pilot survey by the Russian Federation plans to examine nanotechnology issues that are not necessarily covered by traditional statistical surveys, such as technology transfer and linkages between different segments of the national innovation system. The OECD Working Party of National Experts on Science and Technology Indicators is also working on the development of a statistical framework for the measurement of emerging, enabling and general purpose technologies, which includes the notion of impact.
While quantitative measures may be preferable, impact assessments based on qualitative indicators using methods such as technology assessment scenarios and mapping of value chains can also provide valuable information.
I haven’t read the entire report yet but the material after the executive summary bears a similarity to field notes. Generally in reports like this everything is stated in an impersonal third person with the speaker being mentioned only in the header for the section so the contents have an authority associated with holy books. While I haven’t seen any quotes, the speakers here are noted as having said such and such, e.g., “Mr. Tassey suggested a “technology-element” model as an alternative means of driving policy and managing the R&D cycle.” (p. 15) It’s not unheard of, just unusual.
For anyone interested in the earlier reports and/or in the Canadian participation in this 2012 symposium, there’s an interview with Vanessa Clive, Industry Canada, Nanotechnology Policy Advisor in my July 23, 2012 posting where she discusses the symposium and offers links to documents used as background material for the symposium.