Letter to the editor: 'Help the Netherlands to keep its leading position in nanotechnology'

On Thursday 17 August, the Dutch newspaper, Het Financieele Dagblad, published a letter to its editor from Guus Rijnders, Scientific Director of MESA+ and the chair of NanoLabNL. In his letter, Prof. Rijnders argues that nanotechnology and nanoscience research facilities should receive structural funding. 

Without structural funding for scientific research facilities, the Netherlands risks losing its leading position in nanotechnology. That would be a pity, as we would also lose our ability to attract existing and new scientific talent.

Nanotechnology is a field with a growing range of applications throughout society, such as mobile phone components, extremely small sensors, and novel materials. We now have the ability to study materials at the smallest possible scales, to change the properties of materials at a fundamental level, and even to create completely new materials with astonishing properties. And yet, we are still only at the threshold of many anticipated breakthroughs. These include such things as the use of minuscule organs grown on a chip to test medications, quantum computers with almost unlimited computing power, data communication using integrated photonics, or breathalyzers to detect diseases. The Netherlands is a world leader in the areas of nanotechnology and nanoscience. This is a huge achievement for a small country like ours.

One of the key factors underpinning this Dutch success story is the establishment of NanoLabNL. This national nanotechnology infrastructure is funded by major national programmes, such as NanoNed and NanoNextNL. Over the years, the Dutch government has invested about half a billion euros in these facilities. These programmes have now come to an end and, regrettably, no new large-scale programmes have been established.

The nanolaboratories of the universities in Groningen, Delft, Eindhoven and Twente cooperate closely within the framework of NanoLabNL. They were recently joined by the AMOLF research institute (formerly the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics). Companies and knowledge institutions can use the state-of-the-art facilities managed by the various NanoLabNL institutes. They also have access to the expertise of the nanoscientists who work there. The establishment of NanoLabNL has created a cohesive national ecosystem in which scientists, knowledge institutions, and companies can cooperate intensively. It spans the entire spectrum of research, from fundamental research to prototype development and testing. This cohesive ecosystem is at the heart of the Netherlands’ pioneering role in nanotechnology and nanoscience, as shown by the recently approved Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Gravitation programmes and Innovation Incentive Scheme, as well as by various European Research Council (ERC) projects. It should be noted that this intensive cooperation is not only useful, it is also vital. This is because it is so expensive to set up laboratories and to equip them with the requisite machines that none of the parties involved can do this alone.

If we are to continue to excel in the nanosciences we will need cutting-edge facilities, and this will require substantial, structural funding. Without such structural funding for scientific infrastructure, the ecosystem we’ve been working on for so long will fall apart, and the Netherlands will risk losing its leading position. This is not just about facilities. There is also a serious risk that – in the wake of these adverse developments – some of our talented nanoscientists would depart for pastures new, and that we would find it increasingly difficult to attract talent. This haemorrhage of talent would be a major blow to the Dutch knowledge economy and to the companies (both start-ups and established businesses) who make frequent use of this key technology and the available expertise. It would be a great pity if we were to give away our well deserved lead. I am now calling on the government to make structural investments in these facilities and to make sure that the Netherlands continues to be a big presence in the world of the extremely tiny.

Prof. Guus Rijnders, Chair of NanoLabNL