All our modern technologies, from information and communication, energy, and the environment to health and transport, depend on the development of materials that can withstand the highest mechanical and thermal loads, transfer data at the greatest speeds, store data safely in the smallest dimensions, ensure biocompatible transplants, remove monoxides from car exhausts, or separate protons and electrons in fuel cells. Everyday, and almost every second, we are taking advantage of advanced materials and we trust them almost blindly.

Given that the tremendous importance of developing new materials and devices is clear to everybody who spends a few moments thinking about it, why waste an ‘Opinion’ on it? Well, because materials science in Europe has several serious problems: it suffers from a lack of public awareness, is fragmented in many independent national efforts, and (in turn) European funding in fundamental materials research is too low. The urgent need for increasing our efforts in fundamental research is only very slowly creeping into our policymakers' minds and the average European citizen is not aware of the importance of materials at all, or possibly rather afraid of future (nano-) materials. Materials and technologies are usually covered in newspaper headlines only when they have failed in a spectacular way.

It is high time for a change, otherwise Europe will not even be second best in the worldwide race for future high-tech markets. To be very clear, I think that excellent research is being done in European laboratories. Europe has a superb track record in the development of novel materials and phenomena: high-temperature superconductors, the quantum-Hall effect, giant magnetoresistance, C60 chemistry, and the development of scanning tunneling microscopy are only a few heroic examples of many recent cutting-edge achievements. However, in order to be competitive with the US and Japan in the future advancement of nanomaterials science and technology, Europe needs novel and improved funding strategies and much better public awareness.

Modern materials science is a rather complex endeavor, since it depends on several cross-disciplinary or ‘horizontal’ elements, while funding in Europe is ‘vertically’ organized. Today's and tomorrow's materials range from metals, ceramics, and semiconductors to polymeric, organic, and biomaterials that are brought together on a micron- and even nano-scale in completely new geometries. This can only be done successfully if solid-state physicists, chemists, and biologists work together in close contact with industrial research labs. In order to construct new materials structures with new functions, experts in atom-controlled materials synthesis, advanced microscopic analysis of materials, and modeling of materials have to interact closely. Modern synthesis, analysis, and modeling of materials often require very large and expensive facilities, thus fragmented efforts lead to costly and often very ineffective local solutions.

A European project, known as the Grand European Initiative on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology using Neutron and Synchrotron Sources or GENNESYS, has been initiated recently to overcome fragmentation in materials science and to build up a new multicultural research and training platform for the development of advanced nanomaterials and nanotechnologies. GENNESYS is a new initiative involving materials science laboratories, large-scale synchrotron radiation and neutron facilities, and industry. It aims to determine future needs in the analysis of the structure, function, performance, and failure mechanisms of nanomaterials, and to embark on long-term research and training strategies.

In the last year, more than 15 task forces have analyzed the state-of-the-art, as well as future needs and limitations, in various areas of nanomaterials science. During this period, nanoscience labs and industry have discovered the enormous analytical potential that has been built up during the last 20 years in the European synchrotron radiation and neutron facility network. The large-scale facilities, in turn, have learned what demands nanoscience labs and industry will likely have in the future and are eager to adjust their development to meet these challenges. The GENNESYS project is a milestone in restructuring Europe's future research in nanoscience. It will be officially launched in spring 2005.

Europe has no large oil fields and no gold or diamond mines. Europe's ‘oil’ are the new technologies and its ‘gold mines’ are the brains of our younger generation. Europe is also a melting pot of different nations and cultures. I am convinced that our multicultural character carries a unique potential that must be exploited much more efficiently in the future. Materials science, the textbook example of border-breaking research fields, could serve as a model to demonstrate what joint European forces can achieve.

[1] Helmut Dosch, director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Metallforschung in Stuttgart and full professor at the Universität Stuttgart, Germany, leads the GENNESYS project.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00602-9