In the last few years, the world has witnessed huge political upheaval such as Donald Trump’s election, Britain's exit from the EU, the recent French election and this month's snap election results in the UK. Meanwhile, four decades since its inception, nanotechnology continues to effect an increasingly diverse range of fields and promises to revolutionize further industries. But what are the implications of geopolitics on nanotechnology and how may nanotechnology create societal and geopolitical changes?
So far, the US has been the uncontested world leader of nanotechnology, with its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) receiving a federal budget of more than $1.4 billion for 2017, affirming the importance of nanotechnology under the Trump administration. The US recognised the enormous potential of nanotechnology and created the NNI in 2000 to support infrastructure to develop nanotech “for the public good” and to maximize the coherence of research and development. While President Trump has upset many in the US scientific community through his stance to climate science, it seems that support of nanotechnology will continue in the US.
Despite this, numerous European countries, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan and others are devoting more and more funding to nano research, which will put the role of the US as the world leader in nanoscience to the test. It is clear that nations the world over see the potential of nanotechnology and understand that it will improve play a part in future national security.
In the UK, consecutive Conservative governments have put a big emphasis on supporting science and innovation in the UK, stating in their 2015 manifesto an intention to “direct further resources towards the Eight Great Technologies – among them robotics and nanotechnology – where Britain is set to be a global leader.” Current British Premier Teresa May, looks likely to carry on this agenda, with recent manifesto claiming, ‘our ambition is for the UK should be the most innovative country in the world’. Despite this, Brexit puts millions in grants for nanotechnology scientists and SMEs at risk from the EU’s 2020 funding and it is unclear how a potential deal with the DUP in the UK parliament will change science policies in the UK.
Across the English Channel, French president Emmanuel Macron has taken up office intent on intensifying efforts to combat climate change— inviting U.S. researchers who might be unhappy with Trump to work in France. Although this statement has irritated some French scientists, who say the move raises concerns about their nation’s commitment to homegrown science, but what effect this will have on nanotechnology in the country remains to be seen. What is clear is Macron’s commitment to the environment, which nanotechnology could have a profound effect on, and the potential for collaboration between US and French scientists which can only strengthen nanotechnology in France.
Similarly to Macron's invitation to US scientists, in accordance with it's Belt and Road Initiative, China is taking a collaborative approach to nanotechnology. Chinese President Xi Jinping underlined the pursuit of collaboration with other nations through the initiative, expressing in a keynote speech that he seeks more technological cooperation among participating countries.
"We should pursue innovation-driven development and intensify cooperation in frontier areas such as digital economy, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology"
- President Xi Jinping
In the past decade, China’s investments in nano R&D have increased by over 20% each year. The Chinese government created an extra stimulus package in 2009, with over £12bn reserved for R&D due to an understanding that a boost in sciences is critical for future competitiveness. While, the recognition that “nanotechnology is a key enabler technology for many sectors, providing for tremendous growth opportunities” led Russia, Korea and Singapore to launch the Asia Nanotechnology Fund.
For developing countries, debates concerning the possible consequences of nanotechnology have tended to be polarised. Nanotechnology certainly has potential to provide developing countries with sustainable development opportunities, but some fear it could intensify exploitation of the developing world and concentration of power among corporate elites. Surprising levels of developing country research and development (R&D) in nanotechnology have been found by some studies to have occurred, although there is no clear assessment of nanotechnology engagement amongst all developing countries.
Seven state capabilities
As Professor Nayef Al-Rodhan outlined in his 2015 World Economic Forum op-ed on nanotechnology, ‘the correlation between nanotech and national security is often limited to applications of nanotech in the military’ but that it is ‘crucial to understand that the repercussions of nanotechnology on geopolitics and national power are more far-reaching.’ Prof Al-Rodhan suggested that national power is best described in terms of seven key state capabilities:
“Social and health – Nanotechnology can have enormous implications in medicine and therapeutic procedures by improving diagnostics and providing better and faster cell repair. Nanorobots injected to fight cancerous cells can provide targeted drug delivery and make repairs at the cellular level (and potentially even correct failing organs). The DNA nanocage, designed from the body’s own molecules, is developed to “trap” diseases at the molecular level. “Nanosponges”, tiny polymer nanoparticles, could absorb toxins while removing them from the bloodstream. Gold nanoparticles could be used to detect early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The breakthroughs in nanomedicine will provide us with unprecedented control over the human body and will simultaneously raise social and ethical debates.
Domestic politics – Nanotechnology could offer both new platforms for better (and more intrusive) surveillance as well as more efficient technologies for domestic security and emergency response. For example, certain nanomaterials could be employed for creating better sensors that detect hazardous materials and nanorobots could be used to deactivate bombs.
Economy – Nanotech is relevant for fields such as agriculture, where nanosensors could monitor crop growth or detect plant pathogens. It has already been in use for many electronics and it provides smaller, faster and more energy-efficient systems. Nanoscale transistors, for instance, are not only smaller, but also faster and more powerful than their conventional counterparts. To boost their oil industries, states are now considering the potential of using nanoparticles of silica to make oil extraction faster and cheaper.
Environment – Some of the hype around nanotech has focused on its potential to reverse environmental degradation: nanostructured filters and smart nano-materials could purify water or detect contamination. Furthermore, nanotech could have beneficial applications for battery-recycling processes, provide solutions for oil spills and improve the efficiency of solar panels through the incorporation of nanoparticles in solar-panel films.
Science and human potential – A distinct feature of nanotech research has been the convergence with other fields, such as biology, material science, cognitive science, chemistry, engineering, etc. This convergence has generated dynamic interdisciplinary exchanges and the emergence of fields that integrate nanotech with other fields, including nano-medicine, nano-manufacturing, nano-electronics etc.
Military and security potential – Some of the most ground-breaking innovations in the defence industry rely on nano-enabled applications, which span the different phases of military operations. Examples include nanostructures for invisibility cloaks for concealing soldiers, vehicles or weapons; a wide range of smarter and more devastating weapons; and, with the use of carbon nanotubes, lighter and stronger armour and vehicles. Nanotech could also change the future of communications through microscope computers, help develop high-power lasers, or help improve soldiers’ uniforms, by incorporating thermal, chemical and biological sensing systems.
Diplomacy – Nanotech will significantly alter the nature of warfare and weaponry, including nuclear weapons, with inevitable consequences for disarmament diplomacy. The tendency towards increased miniaturization, nano-engineered high-explosives, high performance sensors and many other devices will require new negotiations of standards of arms controls and compliance with international law.
Another consequence of nano-enabled miniaturization and heightened precision on the battlefield will be that some of the political costs of war will be reduced. Soldiers will be better protected and civilian casualties (presumably) minimized. At the same time, the use of nano-technologies with highly destructive potential will exacerbate asymmetries and complicate post-war reconciliation or relations between countries.”
As current global trends and political environments begin to play out, it will be interesting to see how nanotechnology will play a role across global economies, society and geopolitics. Nanoscale materials and processes are already vital for hundreds of commercial products, while research continues throughout the globe. It is clear that nanotechnology is progressively becoming more and more significant for national power – regardless of varying trends and market predictions – something illustrated by global investments and funding in the field both academically and commercially.