China’s Nanotechnology Gains Have U.S. Looking Over Its Shoulder
September 27, 2006
BEIJING – China is rapidly catching up to the U.S. in nanotechnology, the field of working with extremely small objects, a visiting U.S. official said. That success could hold lessons for U.S. policy makers seeking to maintain a competitive edge in scientific research.
“China is one of the players that is gaining on us,” said Robert Cresanti, undersecretary for technology at the U.S. Department of Commerce, in an interview yesterday. “We are wise to take a look at what they are doing that’s been successful, and see how it might apply to improve our system.”
Mr. Cresanti, who is in Beijing to meet with Chinese policy makers, said China’s progress was apparent during his visit. “We saw labs today full to the rafters with scientists and machinery,” he said. There has also been a dramatic increase in the quality and quantity of papers on nanotechnology published by Chinese scientists, he added.
Nanotechnology gets its name from the nanometer, which is one-billionth of a meter, or about 1/100,000th the width of a human hair. The term refers to the manipulation of materials at very small scales, where they start to take on unusual physical properties. Many governments have focused on the technology because it could lead to breakthroughs in areas such as enabling tiny medical devices that could enter human cells and building superstrong materials from novel combinations of molecules.
This year, the Chinese government released a national plan for scientific development that calls for raising spending on research and development to equal 2% of economic output by 2010, from just above 1% in recent years. The plan names nanotechnology as a major priority, calling it an area where China may be able to “leapfrog” wealthier nations.
In a report on nanotechnology released this week, the U.S. National Research Council, a private advisory group, echoed Mr. Cresanti’s worries, writing that “the U.S. lead is facing significant and increasing international competition.” The group said Japan and the European Union are each spending in the order of $1 billion annually on nanotechnology research, which is comparable to the outlay in the U.S.
By comparison, Lux Research Inc. has estimated China’s funding for nanotechnology at $250 million in 2005.
Mr. Cresanti characterized Chinese nanotechnology research as shorter-term and more narrowly focused than the foundational research going on in U.S. labs, but said: “We can learn from each other.” He said Chinese researchers work more closely with industry and tend to be more focused on developing technologies to solve specific commercial problems.
While the direction of research in the U.S. is determined largely by private institutions, China’s rapid development in the field has been tightly orchestrated by its government.
Policy makers are trying to shift China’s economy away from its historic reliance on low-cost manufacturing and toward technology and higher-end industries.
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