The explorative dissertation gives manifold insights into how complex the delineation and historical development of a new technological field is. Its analysis is based on the academic sector with its own structural and cultural elements where distinct formal and informal rules as well as beliefs are valid. The dissertation derives hypotheses from simulation and narrative interview data. The hypotheses make clear that the process of implementation of an advanced technology cannot be seen as an input-output relationship when trying to foster technological innovations and economic growth. Rather, working cultures based on norms, beliefs, and related meanings are located within institutions, i.e., universities and their research groups. These institutions are exposed to external pressures, such as grant policies. The interactions within the field seem to run counter to external political forces. In the end, the tension which emerges in the field produces the identity of nanotechnology within the scientific community. This identity is marked precisely by the ambiguity and reluctance that nanotechnology evokes in nanoresearchers who develop prolific strategies to deal with public funding on the one hand and to nurture the importance of firmly established academic disciplines on the other. These two strands represent the two sides of the coin of the academic community and the identity of nanotechnology.
The results are three-fold: first, the emergence of a research network due to nanotechnology funding and the impact of public funding were simulated by agent-based modeling; second, since the model does not give insights into the organizational life of academic nanotechnology, meanings of German and U.S. nanoscientists and their view on nanotechnology were explored drawing on data from 33 interviews; third, based on these meanings and evaluations of nanotechnology, central organizational characteristics of the academic field of nanotechnology were established. These hypotheses additionally hint to the limits of the Varieties-of-Capitalism (VoC) approach that relates solely to the macro-level and cannot adequately explain the success of nanotechnology in Germany, a coordinated market economy (CME). An analysis of the meso-level reveals the differing national implementations of nanotechnology at universities that show how, in different national contexts, an advanced technology can be successfully incorporated into higher education and research systems.
The main finding was that the field of nanotechnology is exposed to forces exerted by political actors and grant policies on the one hand and by reluctance and ambiguity toward nanotechnology within the scientific community on the other. In other words, a political Mode 2 conception of knowledge production concept meets a Mode 1 culture of university knowledge production. The result is tension, which represents the main characteristic of the field and which marks the production of an identity of nanotechnology that takes effect in academe.
This tension is positively used by politicians and scientists who manage to pursue their own goals without infringing each other’s responsibilities. Scientists, the main actors interviewed for the study, are involved in both institutional and cultural change. They induce change through strategically handling the external political pressure or, more neutrally speaking, political interests by tapping into third-party funds and by simultaneously nurturing their working cultures. The latter were based on academic disciplines that they were formerly socialized in and that marked the reproduction of new scientists for their research groups. Cultural change becomes visible in the fact that an institutionalization of nanotechnology is possible without restructuring the disciplinary based institutional structure of universities and without turning scientists into mere nanotechnologists. Finally, in addition to structural institutional change in higher education systems, processes of institutionalization have been included: the definition of a scientific community via identity construction and professionalization.
The exploration of the field of nanotechnology is important for two reasons. First, nanotechnology is a new advanced technology that is strongly politically pushed and that incites enormous institutional change, both on the structural and on the process-level, as shown by professionalization for instance. Second, in previous studies, an emphasis has been laid primarily on the development of patents and citations in nanotechnology. The study, by contrast, looks at nanotechnology from wholly new perspectives. For countries that stress advanced technologies as drivers for economic growth and measure for international competitiveness, knowledge about the constitution of a field is indispensable if one wants to foster it in a successful and effective way.
For now, nanotechnology is not a discipline in the sense that it has a fixed number of actors or a clear profile or linear identity, yet it has been successfully institutionalized in Germany and the U.S. and is characterized by a unique identity. This identity is based on the socially constructed interests of the central actors of the field, interests that meet at the point where these actors agree that public funding is indispensable to advance nanotechnology.
Institutional change can be observed without a change of the predominant disciplinary structure of universities that is based on chairs and departments or colleges. This finding runs counter to the Mode 2 argument that interdisciplinarity has become a feature of university knowledge production. The tension that arises from the prevalence of disciplines and the integration of nanotechnology into universities embracing several disciplines is necessary to enable institutional change. The security of discipline-based self-categorization gives researchers the freedom to risk change without giving up the basic research orientation in nanotechnology. As basic research is still the major portion that informants devoted their time to, the Mode 2 conception of nanotechnology is thus only partially valid due to the early stage of nanotechnology research.
With these interview and simulation results, implications for higher education policy are derived. With the aforementioned influence of the state, the simulation results demonstrate that the way grants are distributed in scientific communities influences the spread of new disciplines and technological research. The simulation results showed a direct influence of funding schemes, with other possible influential factors, i.e., random sample variances or ‘noise,’ ruled out. Public policy can influence science, however and most importantly, only to a limited degree since, naturally, a number of variables exert pressure and change on the field.