PCAST report; University of Alberta claims leadership in providing nanotech facilities for undergrad students; a securities analysis and innovation in Canada; Mar.10.10 UK debate; science songs

Triumph! After a technical glitch or two,  I was able to watch the live stream of the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI) representatives’, Maxine Savitch and Ed Penhoet, presentation to the  President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, on Friday, March 12, 2010.  The short story (and it’s the same one for every agency): please keep funding us and please sir, we’d like more. (Oliver Twist reference in that last bit)

More seriously, I was impressed by the fact that they adopted a measured approach regarding basic vs commercialization funding needs and regarding competition for leadership in nanotechnology (US vs the rest of the world). There was an acknowledgment that the NNI is ten years old and from there they launched into the need for funding to commercialize nanotechnology while maintaining their commitment to basic science research. They noted that the US is a leader in nanotechnology but its leadership is eroding as more countries in Europe and Asia particularly devote more attention and resources to nanotechnology research.

Surprisingly, they first singled out Germany as a nanotechnology leader; it’s usually (by international organizations and other jurisdictions as well as the US) China which is singled out first as a competitor because of its extraodinarily fast progress to the top three or five depending on what you’re measuring as nanotechnology research. I think this strategy worked well as it expanded the notion of competition between the US and a single country to emphasize the global aspect of the nanotechnology endeavour and the need for a range of strategies.

I had another surprise while watching the live stream when they discussed strategies for retaining students who study for advanced degrees in the US and return to their home countries on completion. There was talk of stapling a “green card” (permission to work in the US) to the graduate diploma although one member of the council hastened to suggest that they only wanted the “right” kinds of advanced degrees. Presumably the council member did not want to encourage experts with advanced degrees in medieval Italian poetry and other such frippery to remain in the US.

There was considerable concern (which led to a recommendation) about the scarcity of data on commercialization, i.e., the true value of the nanotechnology aspect of a product and its benefits.

Mention was made of risks and hazards with the recommendation that research needs to be focused on defining a path for commercialization and on developing a regulatory framework.

Nanoclast (IEEE blogger), Dexter Johnson, has also commented here on the March 12, 2010 PCAST presentation, if you want another perspective.

The folks at Edmonton’s University of Alberta are doing a little chest beating about the nanotechnology research facilities they make available for undergraduate students. From Elise Stolte’s article in the Edmonton Journal,

In a small, windowless room at the University of Alberta, a dozen undergraduate students sit in the middle of $2-million worth of new equipment sensitive enough to measure an atom, the smallest particle of matter.

It’s the first place in Canada where students not yet finished their first degree can start running real experiments on the nano scale, lab co-ordinator Ben Bathgate said.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California’s Stanford University have undergraduate labs that come close, “but they don’t have the range of equipment,” he said.

It’s fragile, state-of-the-art, and so new that one of the 18 machines still has parts in bubble wrap.

I don’t really care whether or not the equipment is better than what they have in Stanford and MIT, I’m just glad to see that an effort is being made to provide students with facilities so they can learn and participate in some exciting and cutting edge research. This is only part of the picture, Tim Harper over at TNT Log comments on a recent report (Vision for UK Research by the Council for Science and Technology) in his post titled, A Concerted Effort to Save British Science,

… there is also a need to start thinking about science in a different way. In fact we really need to look at the whole process of scientific innovation from primary education to technology funding.

This is a holistic approach to the entire endeavour and means that students won’t be left with a degree or certificate and no where to go, which leads me to the topic of innovation.

I’ve commented before on innovation in Canada and the fact that there is general agreement that established businesses don’t spend enough money on R&D (research and development). There is an eye-opening study by Mary J. Benner of The Wharton School which provides what may be some insight into the situation. From the news item on physorg.com,

The reluctance of securities analysts to recommend investment in veteran companies using new techniques to grapple with radical technological change may be harming these companies as they struggle to compete, according to a new study in the current issue of Organization Science, a journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).

The findings suggest that management teams contemplating bold innovation and the adoption of radical technological change may be held back by conservative investment firms that reward firms that stick to their knitting by extending existing technologies.

“This may be short-sighted,” says Dr. Benner. “Existing companies may be rewarded in the short run with increased stock prices for focusing on strategies that extend the financial performance from the old technology, but they may pay later in the face of threatening technological substitutes.”

Benner’s article is behind a paywall but the news item on physorg.com does offer a good summary.

Kudos to Ms. Benner for pointing out that established companies don’t seem to get much support when they want to embrace new technologies. Benner’s discussion about Polaroid and Kodak is quite salutary. (Note: I once worked for Creo Products, computer-to-plate technology, which was eventually acquired by Kodak, a company which, last I heard, is now in serious financial trouble.) This study certainly provides a basis for better understanding why Canadian companies aren’t inclined to innovate much.

The Brits enjoyed their third and final for this series of UK Cross-Party Science Policy Debate on Tuesday, March 9, 2010. The webcast which was live streamed from the House of Commons is available here.  At 2.5 hours I haven’t found the time to listen past the first few minutes. Dave Bruggeman, Pasco Phronesis, does provide some commentary from his perspective as a US science policy analyst.

One final bit for today, the Pasco Phronesis blog provides some videos of science songs from the Hear Comes Science album by They Might Be Giants.

2 thoughts on “PCAST report; University of Alberta claims leadership in providing nanotech facilities for undergrad students; a securities analysis and innovation in Canada; Mar.10.10 UK debate; science songs

  1. Pingback: The memristor rises; commercialization and academic research in the US; carbon nanotubes could be made safer than we thought « FrogHeart

  2. Pingback: Commercializing science research in Canada and elsewhere; Spiderman glue; Citizen archivists; National Poetry Month « FrogHeart

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