By Johannes Eijmberts


Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Political Science in the Graduate School of Social Sciences and Humanities of Northeastern University


Since the 1990s, the potential of nanotechnology has captured the attention of scientists, industry, and governments. Nanotechnology, a ‘general purpose’ technology, is seen as supporting possibly revolutionary breakthroughs in many different sectors, with ample economic and social rewards. Governments, confronted with a new technology that offers great potential benefits while posing as yet uncertain risks, have responded in diverse ways.

This study examines this variance in national government support for nanotechnology – its shape, size, and policy priorities – by comparing the United States and the Netherlands. Our operating hypothesis is that national government support for nanotechnology development is driven not by the intrinsic nature of the technology but by longstanding structural and institutional arrangements. That is, in the U.S., pluralist political traditions and reliance on classical liberal market economics would suggest a detached national government approach, leaving any initiative to market actors. At the same time, legacies of corporatism in the Dutch political system and a tradition of greater direct government involvement in the national economy would suggest a government-led policy on nanotechnology development.

The findings show otherwise. Early on, the U.S. government established the National Nanotechnology Initiative, an overarching federal mechanism to promote and coordinate nanotechnology development. Yet, despite its appearance of central direction and coordination, the NNI reflected pluralist arrangements by leaving ample autonomy for participating federal departments and agencies. More of note, creation of the NNI was driven particularly by concerns of about foreign challenges to American global leadership in science and technology, leading its proponents to seek to better coordinate an expanding range of federally funded nanotechnology research activities and, ultimately, to spur greater federal funding for nanoscale research.

In the Netherlands, by contrast, the path taken shows the legacy of Dutch corporatist practice – slow, incremental, and embedded in pre-existing institutional arrangements. The Dutch government initially took no directive role, relying instead on established links among universities, public research funding organizations, and industries to advance nanotechnology development in the Netherlands. However, over time, Dutch government involvement in nanotechnology grew to be more supportive, sizeable, comprehensive, and directive – in particular by requiring substantial investments in risk-related research as a condition for public funding and, notably, by stated preference to embed Dutch efforts within in broader European policy frameworks.

Analysis of government support for nanotechnology in the United States and the Netherlands underscores the potency of longstanding structural and institutional arrangements. The findings also speak to the increasing importance of international and supranational institutions in shaping national policy directions. Overall, the findings broaden our insights into factors shaping government support for promising fields of science and technology, opportunities for multi-level governance of their effects, and the extent to which convergence in national approaches is a realistic possibility. Given the greater complexity of emerging fields of science and technology, the ever-increasing global competitiveness of applying and commercializing scientific insights and technological advancements, and the rising costs of supporting science and technology development, how governments organize themselves to promote research and development – while also protecting public health and the environment – is an increasingly important question.

Eijmberts Dissertation 2013