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Great minds think small
The institute will be virtual, but the results will be very real.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
McGill physics professor Peter Grütter has been named the research director of the Nano Innovation Platform (NanoIP), a "virtual institute" funded by NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) to the tune of $1 million per year.
Grütter says that the idea of a virtual institute is a powerful one in an age of instant communication and interdisciplinary research.
"There are no new bricks and mortar attached to this institute; the essence of it is to bring together researchers from across Canada to form a nanoscience research community. Instead of having that community located in one building, a nationwide network will link these researchers."
In a world of increasingly interdisciplinary research, nanoscience in particular demands a variety of expertise.
"This is a good way of doing nanoscience because it is very interdisciplinary; one of the problems in this kind of field is getting the right researchers together. We will be organizing workshops and conferences of nanoscience researchers at the local level in Montreal and in other cities across Canada to create local research communities, as well as a Canada-wide research community."
Nanoscience is an emerging field in which researchers work on measuring, building and manipulating materials one atom at a time. Grütter, an NSERC Steacie Fellow (2001) and an Associate Member of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIAR) Nanoelectronics Program, is highly qualified to head this kind of institute. He has worked in the new field of nanoelectronics for a number of years. His research is on powerful instrumentation that allows researchers to see on a subatomic level; currently he and his team are developing an instrument to observe the spin of a single proton.
At a reception last Friday to celebrate the announcement, NSERC director of corporate development William Corderre said that innovation platforms are a new concept for the federal funding body.
"In the case of the nanoscience innovation platform, we decided that this is a scientific area that is too important -- and too pregnant with possibility and opportunity -- to treat as business as usual. We want to accelerate research, by creating a situation in which Canada pulls together a more coherent leadership, and that leadership will direct us how to spend ever more money in an aggressive way in nanoscience and nanotechnology. To identify a leader, we held a national competition, and Peter Grütter won."
Grütter's first task is to put together a scientific advisory board, who will help him develop a strategic plan.
As director, Grütter will be sifting through research proposals from all over the country. He has already decided what kind of projects he will favour.
"The emphasis will be on high-risk, high-return projects, the kind that can raise the profile of nanoscience here in Canada. Nanoscience is doing quite well in Canada, but it doesn't have a lot of visibility, especially outside of the country. We need that visibility if we are going to attract new researchers, faculty and graduate students to come work in this field. High-profile projects might even reverse the brain drain a little bit."
The advisory board will help him evaluate the worth of research proposals, although Grütter will have the final say. He says that NSERC agrees with his emphasis on bold research.
"High-risk projects tend to have some trouble finding funding in this country, so I hope to help remedy that. Because they are high risk, I expect that some of these projects will fail. But even if just one or two of these projects pays off big, the money will have been well invested. Those successes should be home runs."
Grütter is well aware of the risks of his approach, particularly since he will be using NSERC money to bet big on a handful of dicey, although promising, projects.
"It means we will have to make some really hard choices, so my neck will be on the chopping block; everybody whose pet project did not get supported will be kicking and screaming."
The track record of researchers will be an important factor, given the speculative nature of the funded projects. Grütter and his advisory committee will also have to seek a delicate balance between research proposals that appear too far fetched, too "science fiction," and others which may be too safe. However, when asked to provide examples of the kinds of projects he would favour, Grütter wisely declines.
"I don't want people to think too much along one particular line. I want them to be creative and think out of the box; lots of people have great ideas, and I don't want them to tailor those ideas to any preconception." He adds that proposals from all branches of science are welcome, including chemistry, biology, medicine, engineering, etc.
Partially because nanoscience touches so many traditional disciplines, its potential has been the subject of a great deal of hype. Grütter agrees that the potential is great, but cautions that the timeline for breakthroughs could be very long.
"The big nano revolution which people are talking about won't happen for the next 15, 20 years, mostly because breakthroughs would require a lot of people working on it, and there are not enough researchers trained in this field yet."
However, he does see eventual applications in a number of key fields.
"I think the reason nanotechnology will have a much greater societal impact than silicon integrated circuits is that it is applicable to many more fields than just electronics. Some of the boundaries between disciplines will melt and there will be cross-fertilization between fields.
"I think the first impact will be felt in medicine, because of the demographics of an aging society, and in electronics, because in the next 10 years they will be hitting fundamental limits to miniaturization and increases in capacity. Traditional miniaturization methods won't work anymore, and they will have to build at the nano level instead."
In the more immediate future, Grütter's new high-profile job should provide a boost to McGill's nanoscience research,
"Right now, nano is a very competitive field for hiring good people, every university wants to do that. I think my appointment to this position will make it easier for McGill to attract top minds in this field, both professors and graduate students. Again, visibility is always a boost."
McGill Dean of Science Alan Shaver agrees.
"The University, and particularly the Faculty of Science, has been hiring nanoscientists for a number of years, and people have also been changing their research orientation to get into this area. I think the appointment of Peter is recognition of the strength that the Faculty of Science and McGill has shown in this emerging technology. It will have tremendous impact scientifically, which is our main goal, but also in the teaching of our students and the commercialization of breakthroughs."
Vice-Principal (Research) Louise Proulx says that McGill is "developing a recruitment strategy for nanoscience, in engineering, physics, chemistry and biomedical. Those four areas cover a large spectrum of nanosciences. This recruitment will start next year, but it is in fact a long-term plan, for the next three to five years."