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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Science and Research

Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies:
Opportunities and responsibility

High Level Conference on Nanotechnologies

Braga (Portugal), 21 November 2007

Minister Cabrera, Minister Gago, Vivian, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be in Braga today to mark with you the establishment of the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory. This is an important initiative for European research and innovation, and for the development of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology deals with the science of the very small, but it provides a very large opportunity for the improvement of Europe's competitiveness and the quality of life of its citizens. As we seize this opportunity, we get closer to achieving the economic, social, and environmental goals of the renewed Lisbon Strategy.

The promise of nanotechnology is already making itself felt in several areas, for example in materials, medical treatments, batteries and light sources.

We know that the world is using too many non-renewable resources, and it is only with new knowledge and good management that this non-sustainable trend can be reversed. Nanosciences and technologies can make significant contributions to major global challenges such as:

  • Tackling threats to the environment and preventing climate change;
  • Making better use of resources and creating less waste; and
  • Improving energy generation technologies.

Strong reasons make strong actions, as the saying goes. So it is fitting that the promise of nanotechnology should be matched by equally strong actions.

Europe is in a leading position in the world, partly thanks to the EU Framework Programmes for Research and national programmes. European industry can now reap the benefits of this knowledge through innovative products and processes.

Indeed, Europe has the objective to strengthen the scientific and technological bases of this industry and to encourage it to become more competitive. But to follow through, we need to take action on several fronts, which were outlined in the Action Plan for Europe for 2005-09.

These include the need to:

  • increase investment, both public and private;
  • to create the necessary interdisciplinary infrastructures and train skilled human resources;
  • to foster industrial innovation; and
  • to ensure that nanotechnologies are developed and applied safely.

We have already made much progress in implementing the Action Plan, as reported in the Commission's recent Implementation Report for 2005-2007.

The Framework Programmes’ funding for research in nanosciences and nanotechnologies has steadily increased.

The Commission has now become the largest single public funding agency of nanotechnology in the world, and accounted for a third of public funding of nanotechnology research in the EU. And significant funding increases are expected over the duration of the 7th Framework Programme.

This funding is bearing fruit. There is stronger industrial participation in the research projects. The result is innovation from companies, including SMEs, with more and more patents and the creation of spin-off companies.

In existing production lines, nanotechnologies are being introduced into the value chain, for example in surfaces, textiles, paints or electronics.

However, private investment in the field must be enhanced. Europe's companies are falling behind their major competitors in funding and exploitation.

In this context, the European Technology Platforms - many of which are linked to nanotechnology - are a way of stimulating industrial involvement and innovation. And my colleague Vivian Reding has just presented to you the first proposals for Joint Technology Initiatives.

But beyond funding and innovation, we must ensure a safe and responsible approach to the successful development of nanotechnologies.

With new discoveries come new unknowns and we must respect and address concerns from the public. Society should benefit from nanotechnology, while being protected from possible adverse impacts.

We need to develop nanotechnology within a climate of understanding and consent and, of course, with a commitment to ethical principles.

Without the public acceptance of our advances, we are simply lost. This is a huge responsibility which industry, researchers, governments and civil society share together.

The Commission is currently seeking to develop a code of conduct for responsible nano research. This is an important point. Legislation and regulation cannot cover everything in such a broad and fast moving area.

We need to rely on a responsible approach, which allows nanotechnology the freedom it requires to develop. But we also need safeguards to ensure it works for our benefit as a whole.

One of the best ways to do this is to have a clear code of conduct, in which everyone can participate and which can act as a flexible blueprint for the nanotechnology research field. This not only provides clarity and an inclusive approach.

It also avoids the need for a top down attitude to nanotechnology research from lawmakers.

This summer the Commission organised a public consultation on our proposed code, and I am happy to say that 88% of those who responded welcomed the idea of a code of conduct and that 86% said they would be ready to adopt such a code.

Larger differences in replies could be seen when it comes to the scope and the principles proposed for the code. Some want a wider scope and stricter principles, others the opposite. This is proof to me that we need an inclusive dialogue around these issues.

I hope to be able to present you the code of conduct in spring 2008. Just like the nanotechnology research, I hope that the code will be dynamic and inspiring. It should have an important role to stimulate contact between the different stakeholders, to try to build a consensual line around the development of nanotechnology. It is not an easy task, but it is one to which I am committed.

There are also a wide range of European and international actions, in research, metrology and regulation that address the potential adverse impact of nanotechnologies. The strategy is to act at the earliest possible stage; through adjustments of risk assessment procedures for nanotechnology, or through regulatory changes where necessary.

We have made efforts to work more closely with international partners, in industrially advanced countries but also with less advanced ones. We are working with international partners in selected research efforts, in developing standards, and in promoting a safe and responsible use of nanotechnology.

A good example of such collaboration is the creation of a joint EU-India nanotechnology research fund, as announced earlier this month. A fund of 10 million euros was created by both partners to allow the best institutions in India and the EU to work together in this field.

Markets are becoming global, the environment is one system and human health is - or should be - a priority everywhere.

Good governance must be tackled at international level, both bilaterally and multilaterally. Fora such as the OECD also have an important role to play.

Let me also stress how all this work depends on the close cooperation between the Commission and the Member States. In this regard I would like to thank the Portuguese Presidency, as well as the preceding presidencies, for their interest and support.

I believe it would be fair to say that together we have made a lot of progress in many areas. However, we should not forget how much still needs to be done in the coming years:

  • We must build on the existing momentum, and consolidate our activities in research and industrial innovation, in the face of growing international competition;
  • We should pay special attention to the development of interdisciplinary infrastructures and human resources. I have no doubt that the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory represents a significant contribution to this aim;
  • We must promote appropriate conditions for the safe and effective use of nanotechnology;
  • And we should foster a shared understanding of the responsibility of researchers within an ethical framework.


Ladies and gentlemen,

The world is getting smaller. Our technologies are also getting smaller. But our challenges are not. So we need to work together in many areas, including in nanotechnology.

I have raised some of the challenges that we must now face. We must keep in mind that we are developing nanotechnology for the benefit of our citizens and the competitiveness of our industry.

Just as science has used the best of many areas to advance, we too must look at the areas surrounding nanotechnology, such as its economic and societal implications. In this way, we can ensure that nanotechnology's progress is neither blocked nor unbalanced, nor left to chance.

Thank you.

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