Taiwan’s top nanotech advocate educates island’s public, leaders

TAIPEI, Taiwan, Nov. 8, 2002 — Taiwan’s National Science Council unveiled its National Nanotechnology Initiative earlier this year, announcing that it will spend $667 million over six years, starting in 2003, on developing its nanoscience industry.

The planned investment puts the self-governed isle in the ranks of other developed regions that are giving priority to nanotech research and development. The European Union plans to spend $700 million in the next four years.

But as Taiwan well knows, capital alone is not enough to spur nanotechnology development. Policies also have to ensure that Taiwan capitalizes on its competitive advantages, opens avenues for research and create public awareness of nanotechnology’s potential.

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Guiding creation of these policies is Wu Mao-Kuen, director of Taiwan’s National Nanotechnology Initiative and a research fellow at the Institute of Physics at Academia Sinica, the island’s most prestigious research institution.

In the past year, Wu has overseen the successful launch of two nanotechnology centers. In January, the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), a nonprofit research and development organization that carries out government and private projects, opened a Nanotechnology Research Center. And in September, a nanotechnology laboratory and chip design center opened in the southern city of Tainan with $1 million in funding. The Tainan Science-based Industrial Park plans to offer nanotechnology courses and vocational training programs. A third nanotechnology center is expected to open in the central city of Taichung at the end of 2003.

The bulk of the island’s nanotechnology research will be carried out at ITRI, which expects to receive $300 million — almost half of the nation’s nanotechnology funding — over the next six years. ITRI’s main goal is to convert “the sweeping promises of the nanoworld into strategic real-world applications,” according to Jih Chang Yang, executive vice president and general director of the Nanotechnology Research Center.

ITRI’s research and development program will devote 20 percent of its resources to technologies that can be commercialized within the next one or two years, such as nanopowders, pigments and polymers. Another 60 percent of funding will be given to “major thrust” technologies, like integrated circuits, displays, mobile communications, optical communications and energy applications. The remaining 20 percent will go to nanotechnology projects “with truly revolutionary implications” that will take at least 10 years to reach commercial maturity.

In addition to doling out money to various projects, the government is considering how to attract foreign talent to Taiwan, while also responding to the potential impact that China will have on Taiwan’s nanotechnology industry. The local newspapers reported in early October that the government plans to exempt foreign professionals in nanotechnology and other science fields from income taxes. According to the China Times, the economic ministry is likely to allow Taiwanese companies to increase the number of Chinese scientists they employ — from 10 to 50 percent. These policies will help Taiwan bring further Chinese and foreign talent to develop the nanotechnology sector.

Wu is also seeking more cooperation with his Chinese and Japanese counterparts. Annual meetings bring East Asian nanotechnology experts together to discuss academic breakthroughs. Last year, the meeting took place in Xinjiang, a northwest province in China and another meeting is scheduled to be held in Hong Kong this December.

Wu believes that cross-discipline interaction is as important as international cooperation. “In the past, life scientists and physical scientists had no interaction,” he said.

Wu sees a part of his job as creating public awareness of nanotechnology’s potential. “In Taiwan, there is a lot of awareness of semiconductors,” said Wu. Indeed, semiconductors helped transform Taiwan into one of Asia’s most developed regions in the 1990s. “But a lot of people don’t understand what nanotechnology is.”

Wu said that public lectures on the subject are planned. Seminars will be given to high school teachers so they can educate students on the subject. In October, Taiwan’s National Science Council helped organize an open house session at Academia Sinica, during which parents brought their children to view exhibits on the coming age of nanoscience.

Having left a comfortable position as a physics professor at Columbia University, Wu returned to his native Taiwan in 1994 to help build the island’s scientific research community. After the United States put together its National Nanotechnology Initiative, Wu, along with other scientists in Taiwan, were inspired to create a similar program. But it was not until this year that the council was able to convince Taiwan’s parliament to invest big in nanotechnology.

“It wasn’t hard to convince the government,” said Wu. “I had to educate them a little. I told them what a nanometer is. I showed them a picture of Michael Jordan. At a height of two meters, he is two billion nanometers.”


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