The Little Nanotechnology Center that Could

This piece was written for my International Reporting class in Prague, in
December 2010.

 

PRAGUE – Jiri Rathousky led me through a building which appeared to be frozen in time from the Soviet-era 80’s—tattered brown leather chairs encircling glass tables for a sitting room, kitschy plastic plants lining tired beige walls, an old man leafing through a typewritten directory at the front desk. The Department of Structure and Dynamics, an institute under the umbrella of the Czech Academy of Sciences, hadn’t changed much at all.

“These elevators are really terrible, sometimes they break down, so we’re hoping for new ones soon,” Rathousky said as the metal doors clamped shut on us in the 4 by 4 ft elevator box.

But on the 6th floor of this 30-year old building constructed under communist rule, Rathousky and a small staff of about 10 are laboring on breakthroughs in nanotechnology research, a sector which many believe may be the science of the future due to its huge potential to improve the environment, preserve monuments, and create efficiencies in the use of batteries and solar energy.

Rathousky’s Department of Structure and Dynamics in Catalysis is only one of the several small laboratories and initiatives that have cropped up in the Czech Republic in recent years. This country of only 10 million has become the only post-communist country to make it to the top of Western nanotechnology research, ranking alongside highly reputable labs in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Spain in the past 20 years.

“From an independent overview, given the relatively low input of funds from the government, the Czech Republic’s output in the nanotechnology sector is comparable to that of the Western countries,” said Dr. Martin Pumera, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “The quantity of funds and labs are limited, but the quality of work is remarkable.”

Nanotechnology is the study of materials less than 100 nanometers on the metric scale—about 80 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Although a broad topic consisting of a wide array of technologies, it involves the assembling of new materials from the bottom up, on a molecular scale, resulting in the creation of materials that often are not naturally or biologically possible. It is the manipulation and modeling of matter at this tiny level that allows scientists to achieve remarkable advancements in medicine and energy, such as the ability to repair tissue or destroy cancer cells on the nano level.

Rathousky’s 6th floor lab, recently renovated through an EU grant, is working on creating a new self-cleaning surface made of nano-materials that, when spread over old statues, can scour years of accumulated dirt without damaging the original surface. In this way, Rathousky plans to use nanotechnology to preserve the old monuments of Prague. Only nano particles are small enough to slip into surface pores and convert the original surface into a more durable facade.

“We are doing this because some preservation detergents are poisonous not only to the statue surfaces, but also to people and the environment,” Rathousky said. With nanotechnology, tiny particles called micells are able to dissolve the dirt upon contact without damage.

But why has this modest country become a star on the nanotechnology stage? The Czech Republic lags behind when it comes to scientific funding—countries such as France, Germany and the U.S. have all increased their scientific funding during the past year despite economic hardship, while small labs here are struggling and scientists are leaving the country to find better pay. Not to mention the economic climate has discouraged young Czechs from entering the scientific scene—while in the countries mentioned above, there is more of an emphasis on keeping the young people involved.

Czech scientists like Rathousky, though paid a low salary (about a fifth of the salary of a scientist in the U.S. — not much more than minimum wage), believe the Czechs have been successful in the sciences simply because there is more drive to do well.

“When you have a small country with small lab staffs, you have to work extra hard and be even more
motivated,” he said.

Another cause stems from decent improvement in domestic funding from the Czech government in the past ten years. According to the 2009 guidebook for State Supported Research & Development in the Czech Republic, CZK 9.67 billion in 1999 has increased to the current CZK 23 billion during the last 10 years–an increase of 238% in funds for development of sciences.

But the biggest factor is perhaps a matter of learning from others — something the little country has gotten the hang of — especially scientific success giants like Japan or the U.S.

“Through European outreaching and collaborations and access to EU money, we have really made huge leaps forward,” Rathousky said. “You still have to work hard to apply to EU grants, but it increases our competitiveness on the international scene.”

The most recent indicator of the Czech Republic’s success in attracting EU funding for nanotechnology research lies in the development of a tiny chip that can detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Along with 18 other Western European countries, the Czech Republic will receive 9 million Euros from the EU Commission. The Czech Republic is the only post-communist country on the list of leading participants.

Foreign investment has also played an enormous role in Czech science since the fall of communism. Vladimir Matolin, a physics professor at Charles University, calls it a “transfer of knowledge”—after 1989, foreign countries began to move their technologies and companies to the Czech Republic.

Although they continued to flourish there, Matolin says these “technologies were not created and developed here, but rather imported from other countries so they are not really our own.” In other words, in many of the sciences, the Czechs did not start their own research from scratch, but rather took advantage of the foreign companies who continued to do their own work on Czech soil.

The cheerleaders of the Czech nano scene, however, are limited. Others involved in scientific research believe that the nanotechnology scene is popular not because of its actual results, but because those who lobby for its funds are often skilled at making it seem more important than the other sciences, such as physics or chemistry.

“Many heads of nanotechnology research get involved in politics,” Matolin said. “They can influence the distribution of money from the ministry to certain science sectors by saying how important nanotechnology is. The average person doesn’t always understand what nanotechnology means, although it sounds new and exciting, and so those doing nanotechnology research get access to the money.”

Matolin, who worked as a scientist under Soviet rule, said that in order to have a sector funded during the regime, the head of the department or research project had to be in good political standing with the communist party. “It is similar” to the politics of funding sciences today, in which nanotechnology center heads often talk and sell their way into securing the funds, he said. And the ministry uses the “sexiness” of nanotechnology in the hopes of luring foreign investment.

While access to European money has improved science funding in the past two decades, many of the sciences continue to be underfunded, Matolin said. And although nanotechnology may be the most popular science in the Czech Republic, Jiri Rathousky’s 6th floor nano center still has a long way to go, to complete lab construction, organize equipment, and hire more scientists.

“One of the reasons why I left the Czech Republic for Singapore is because I couldn’t support my family there working as a scientist — I couldn’t pay rent,” Pumera said.  What the Czechs are lacking in funds, however, they are making up in hard work and quality of research.

“You really have to love science to work in the Czech Republic as a scientist,” Pumera said. “If you don’t love it, you don’t do it.”

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