Interdisciplinary Research Group 2: Globalization and Nanotechnology

IRG 2’s research and outreach has addressed two key issues resulting from the globalization of nanotechnology (and, indeed, emerging technologies generally):

• The conditions under which national, state-driven policies can and do make a difference in advancing national goals with regard to R&D and commercialization of nano-enabled products, and conversely,

• The extent to which the cosmopolitan nature of science, which increasingly depends and thrives on cross-border collaborations, can enable advances to transcend national boundaries. 

Another overarching concern of IRG 2 (indeed, of CNS in general) is the use of nanotechnologies and other emerging technologies to foster more equitable and sustainable development. To address these issues, we have focused on nanotechnology innovation in the U.S., China, and selected Latin American countries. We have also conducted supporting research in Japan, India, and Korea.

State policies (and budgets) are intended to elevate a country’s global position as a nanotech player, enabling it to reap the anticipated economic rewards of what is predicted to be a multi-trillion dollar commercial sector. Since the U.S. officially launched the NNI at the end of 2000, global governmental spending on nanotechnology is estimated to exceed $100 billion; when private funding is included, the total is estimated to be as much as a quarter of a trillion dollars (Cientifica 2011). Revenue from nano-enabled products is now estimated to exceed $1.6 trillion (Lux 2015). Clearly, public officials across the world have come to see nanotechnology as the next technological revolution; firms and investors – no doubt in part attracted by the availability of public funding – have followed suit.

We have been especially interested in comparing the U.S., where the NNI favors basic research, with China, where state policies range from supporting basic research to providing infrastructure and capital for commercialization. Countries like Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil offer a range of intermediate approaches for comparative analysis.

International collaboration, by way of contrast, places primacy on the advancement of scientific discovery, and therefore is arguably less nationalistic and more cosmopolitan in nature. This “new invisible college” is comprised of global science and engineering networks, resulting in opportunities that extend beyond national borders. They can be of particular benefit to developing countries, to the extent that international partnerships contribute to technology transfer and scientific development.


To address these issues, IRG 2 has engaged in a number of interrelated projects and activities that draw on field interviews, documentary analysis, survey research, patent analysis, and studies of publications and patents. Much of our work has focused on China’s S&T policy – the extent to which China’s emphasis on indigenous innovation has resulted in nanotechnology R&D and commercialization, particularly in Shanghai and Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). There we have interviewed academic scientists and engineers, entrepreneurs, public officials responsible for S&T development, and science park officials. Our most recent research involves a large sample survey of Chinese STEM faculty in China’s leading universities, in order to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of China’s science education. We have also surveyed Chinese (and other foreign) STEM graduate students at U.S. universities, to better understand their motives for studying in the U.S., their experiences, and their reasons for staying or leaving after graduating.

We have compared China’s efforts – which involve substantial public investment, from basic research to commercialization – with the U.S. NNI’s emphasis on basic research. We extended our research to include Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, supported by two grants from UC MEXUS/ CONACYT, examining the role of government policy in support of nanotechnology development in all three countries. Our research in Mexico employed a global value chain framework, categorizing firms according to whether they produced raw nanomaterials, nano-intermediates, nano-enabled commodities, or nano instruments. This research also enabled us to establish a relationship with the Latin American Network for Nanotechnology and Society (ReLANS), one result of which was a conference in Curitiba, Brazil, cohosted by ReLANS and CNS, that brought together trade unionists and academics from the U.S., Europe, and Latin America, to raise awareness of occupational health and safety (OHS) issues in industries that use nanomaterials.