The UK Nanotechnologies Strategy – disappointing

Ten years ago, President Clinton laid the foundation stone of the current global Nanotechnology Initiative.  In a speech given at at Caltech, he announced the formation of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative, and set a chain of events in motion that has led to economies and businesses around the world investing in the technology of the small.  A decade on, nanotechnology is a multi-billion dollar research and development enterprise, is touted as holding the promise of reviving economies, creating jobs and solving global challenges, and is already adding to the performance and value of innumerable products.

Against this backdrop, the UK Government has just released its first a new strategy for the successful and safe development of nanotechnology – or nanotechnologies to be precise. [See update for why this isn’t the first strategy]

I was interested to read the strategy, having just finished helping to review the US National Nanotechnology Initiative for the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (the PCAST review of the NNI is due to be published shortly).  The UK has had a strong presence in the nanotechnology arena for some years, combined with a pragmatic approach to technology development. So I was expectant of a strong and sensible strategy that mapped out how the country planned to be a key player in the “next industrial revolution.”

Sadly, I was disappointed.

At the risk of boring readers, I’m going to include somewhat detailed comments on the strategy below.  But here are my headline reflections:

  • Successful nanotechnologies need strategic investment in science. The strategy focuses on three key areas: exploiting nanotechnology breakthroughs commercially, addressing potential health, safety and environmental impacts, and regulating the technology and its products.  However, there is no specific emphasis on exploratory science. The implicit assumption is that the machinery of knowledge generation – funding for exploratory research, and the expertise to generate new knowledge – is in place.  But this is a very rash assumption indeed.  Without strategic investment in funding exploratory nanoscale science, especially at the interface between disciplines, the UK is likely to loose out to other countries that recognize the need to drive innovation through knowledge creation.  The US and China in particular are steaming ahead here – without a clear research strategy, the UK is destined to become marginalized.
  • Innovation begets innovation. While the strategy addresses the commercial exploitation of nanotechnology in general terms, it stops short of considering how innovative new approaches can be used to get innovative new technologies to market – including alternative financing models, new ways of enabling technology transfer, and overcoming institutional barriers to change.
  • Risk and regulation cannot drive an effective nanotechnologies strategy. I’m a strong advocate of dealing with the potential adverse impacts of nanotechnologies.  But developing a national nanotechnologies strategy that is two thirds-focused on understanding and addressing potential risks seems a little over the top, even to me!  Strategic risk-research and responsive oversight are absolutely essential to the safe and sustained development of nanotechnology-based products and processes.  But in the broader context, they should support the overall aims of improving quality of life, stimulating economic growth and providing jobs – not be the heart and soul of the whole enterprise.
  • Nanotechnologies risk research isn’t just about reassuring people that products are safe. Despite a heavy emphasis on risk and regulation, the strategy seems to reflect a somewhat naive understanding of why research into potential risks, handling uncertainty and developing responsive oversight is important.  Repeatedly, the need to reassure “the public” that the products they buy are safe is highlighted as an important driver.  But how about the need of businesses to develop and market products responsibly?  Many businesses that have a culture (or are developing one ) of placing a high priority on producing safe and responsible products are desperate for better information on how to do this with nanotech-enabled products.  Yet it’s telling that the UK strategy has no clear link between environmental, health and safety research and business, industry and innovation.
  • Strategies should be built on sound data. There are a number of places in the report where the data are suspect – especially in the section dealing with business, industry and innovation.  At the least, I would expect a Government-level report to get the facts right.  For instance, it is claimed that the UK is fourth in the world in terms of the number of nanotechnology patents applied for, after the US, Japan and Germany.  Yet the latest figures – published last year – show the UK ranking 11th in terms of the number of patents filed in the country (in 2008, 68 nanotechnology patents were filed in the UK, compared to 3,729 in the US and 5,030 in China.  That’s around 0.5% of all nanotechnology patents filed in 2008).  The report also estimates “the global market in nano-enabled products is expected to grow from $2.3 bn in 2007 to $81 bn in 2015,” yet the basis for these figures is not explained (they come from a report that will set you back $6,000 if you want to read it!).  These figures seem very low – especially compared to estimates of between $1 trillion and $3 trillion from other sources for the future worth of products based in some way on nanotechnology.  In effect, the UK Government figures are meaningless without further explanation.  And if they are correct, I have to wonder why governments and industry around the world are investing tens of billions of dollars in a technology that is only going to be worth… tens of billions of dollars!
  • If you are going to form a Nanotechnology Research Strategy Group, make sure their scope extends beyond just addressing risks. I have to applaud the UK strategy for listing a sensible set of nanotechnology environmental, health and safety research priorities (Appendix A of the report).  But to make these THE research priorities of the Nanotechnology Research Strategy Group – that just send a message that the UK government is only interested in potential risks.  Changing the name of the group might be a good idea!
  • Resist the temptation to include past activities as strategic actions. Call me a pedant, but I do find it frustrating where a strategy includes stuff that has already been done in its list of actions.  It smacks of padding things out, rather than looking forward to what needs to be done, and how.  Actions 3.3 – 3.6, just for example, refer to activities already underway – nothing particularly strategic about that!
  • Don’t confuse toxicology with risk science.  There are three action points in the report (3.14 – 3.16) specifically aimed at developing the UK’s toxicology skills base.  This is good – it should be developed.  But so should expertise in exposure assessment, risk assessment, risk management, handling uncertainty and oversight.  Sadly, the strategy seems to assume that toxicology is the be-all and end-all of risk identification, assessment and management, whereas in reality it is only one component.
  • If you are going to reach out to members of the public, take it seriously. In 2009 BIS supported what is possibly the best lay source of information on nanotechnologies – Nano & Me.  But rather than praising the initiative and supporting it, the UK strategy is rather less than luke-warm.  According to the strategy, the website has completed its 5 months (5 months?!) trial period, and will now be evaluated – that’s it.  This effort needs to be run longer – much longer.  It needs to be funded better.  And it needs to be promoted by the Government, not treated like an embarrassing relative.

So all in all, not a great strategy.  It’s not all bad – there are strengths in what the UK has done and intends to do in developing safe and successful nanotechnologies.  But as a strategy, this would have been flaky five years ago, and is now positively threadbare.

In a global climate where economies are eying one another up to see who’s going to take the lead in nanotechnology, I’m afraid the strategy sends a clear message – don’t worry about us!


Some more specific observations

  1. In the executive summary (p4), there is no mention of supporting research in nanoscience that will lead to innovation in nanotechnologies.
  2. Nanotechnologies are described as being “at a very early stage in their development” (p6).  After a ten-year global push and many previous years’ research into nanoscale science, together with a wealth of nanotech-enabled products on the market, this is a dubious statement at best.
  3. I’m wondering when we will see “more compact and powerful computer systems, mobile phones and wiring systems incorporating carbon nanotubes” (p6) – unless it’s just the wiring systems that will use the nanotubes.  Very unclear.
  4. I’ve already questioned the projection of the global market in nano-enabled goods as $81 bn in 2015 above.
  5. Apparently, the UK also has the third highest number of nanotechnologies companies in the world.  Wow!  Which countries are leading us – the US, China, Japan, Korea, Germany perhaps?  Take your pick – although I’m not sure how you will tell if you are correct, as no source was given for the claim.
  6. A tricky point in any report like this is explaining what nanotechnologies are.  I’d love to know what others thought of the explanation in Box 1 (p6), which gets close to mixing and matching nanotechnologies, nanomaterials and nanoparticles.  I was confused!
  7. I’ve already addressed the question of nanotechnology patents above.  Why the report didn’t cite Dang et al. I don’t know!
  8. On page 7 the report states “At present, it is thought that the greatest level of risk may be posed by nanomaterials which are in the form of free particles, such as in a powder or liquid.”  This was a conclusion of the 2005 Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineers report on nanotechnologies, and is still important.  But over the past five years, perspectives have developed and become a little more sophisticated, recognizing the need to consider how new materials might come into contact with and interact with people and the environment, rather than fixating on nanoparticles.
  9. This I found interesting:  On page 9 it is stated that “Above all, it is Government’s role to protect health and the environment during the development and use of nanotechnologies.”  This possibly explains the emphasis on risk and regulation in the strategy.
  10. Figure 1 in the report shows the linkages between the four different areas of the strategy.  But as mentioned above, there is no direct linkage between environmental, health and safety research, and business, industry and innovation.  I would argue that two-way links here are absolutely essential to responsible development.
  11. Here’s a recurring theme in the strategy. On page 11 one challenge to the commercialization of nanotechnologies listed is “A need for industry to engage with the public in order to raise awareness of the benefits of nanotechnologies-based products, and to counter any negative perceptions or concerns” (emphasis added).  I’m sorry, this is not what public engagement is all about.  In fact, in the light of this, I’m embarrassed to have applauded the UK’s approaches to public engagement and science last week – clearly there are some communication disconnects between departments!
  12. On page 15, in reading about a lack of critical mass amongst small nanotech businesses in the UK, and a lack of business leadership, I was wondering where the Nanotechnology Industry Alliance was… Surely these small businesses aren’t voiceless.
  13. Page 21 lists some good research into nanotechnology environmental, health and safety issues carried out in the UK. Unless I have missed something, they are all associated with a group of researcher based in Edinburgh. Should this have been called the Scottish Nanotechnologies Strategy?
  14. However, on the same page an important study into the the potential health impacts of long carbon nanotubes is credited to Ken Donaldson – Graig Poland, not Ken, was the lead author.  This sort of mistake should not occur in a report like this one!
  15. I’ve already mentioned the strange name of the group established to focus on nanotechnology environmental, health and safety research above (p 22) – the Nanotechnologies Research Strategy Group.  Wonder if the UK has a shadow group looking at non-environmental, health and safety research.
  16. I’ve also covered the emphasis on toxicology above, but this is so important that it’s worth mentioning again.  On page 26 the report states “A shortage of new toxicologists was identified in RCEP’s report in 2008 as a risk to the nanotechnologies field, as toxicology research is pivotal to the successful development of new materials and products.”  Looking over that RCEP report, it had a strong emphasis on toxicology which at the time was not out of place.  But the UK strategy seems to have taken one recommendation from that report and run with it, to the exclusion of every other aspect of risk identification, assessment and management.  I’m not sure what the opposite of a strategy is, but this would qualify in my books.  Strategic action towards developing safe and responsible nanotechnologies must address all aspects of risk – not just material hazard.
  17. On page 27, the strategy sets out the four key areas where “nanomaterials are most likely to come into contact with humans, or the environment”: Food; Cosmetics; Healthcare devices and medicines; and Workplace health and safety.  These are all very reasonable.  But what about all the other strategic areas – products which might shed nanomaterials while being used; products that lead to inadvertent exposure; products that release nanomaterials when disposed of or recycled; products that children might chew on or ingest, and so on.  Restricting the strategy to these four areas seems, well, restrictive.
  18. Following up on those medical devices and medicines, there’s no mention of the regulatory challenges presented by combination products – products that act as both a device and a medicine.  Maybe this isn’t an issue in the UK – it’s certainly one in the US.
  19. When it comes to the workplace, I was intrigued to see that “there are no current plans for any specific guidance on risk management for materials other than carbon nanotubes.”  Why?  Businesses and researchers are desperate for clear guidance on working safely with nanomaterials, which is why organizations such as NIOSH, ICON and ISO have been so active in the area.  The good news is that, even if the UK government isn’t intending to provide useful information for working with nanomaterials in the immediate future, others are filling the gap.

Update, 3/18/10  When this piece was first posted, I mistakenly referred to the strategy as the UK’s first nanotechnology strategy – a perception that the report itself does nothing to dispel.  However, as Michael Kenward kindly pointed out in the comments, this is in fact the UK’s second nanotechnology strategy (as long as you don’t nit-pick over differences between “nanotechnology” and “nanotechnologies.”).  The original strategy – published in 2002 – is available here Strangely, the current strategy does not acknowledge the existence of its predecessor. [PDF, 422 KB].

32 thoughts on “The UK Nanotechnologies Strategy – disappointing”

  1. They do cite a source, of sorts, for the “number three in nanotech companies” – but it leads to a website that at best is no more than a news aggregator and a bunch of Adsense links.

    1. Thanks. Yes, I’d forgotten to mention that! First time round they don’t include a citation (on page 6). Second time round, they link to – which tells you precisely nothing, and is the sort of citation that would be excised from a child’s essay without hesitation!

  2. Mmmm. Interesting stuff.

    I went to a seminar recently where the speaker (Jane Gregory, UCL) argued that we could read the bulk of UK engagement policy as simply an attempt to make the public feel more comfortable about buying new products. So, not so much a matter of opening up science as being a bit cleverer about selling us stuff (which, depending on your politics, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s all really quite linear/ deficit model after-all, despite the wrapping in a bit of sociologically-based jargon). It’s about making us all agree, and agree that it’ll be ok in the end. Hence the obsession with risk, not to mention similar emphasis on consensus, and general avoidence of more extreme viewpoints. It’d probably be reductive/ unfair to apply it to all UK science policy, but I thought it was interesting analysis. Think it’s going to be published in Science as Culture in the next few months (co-author Charles Thorpe)

    1. Thanks Michael – I’m floored! This report is not cited in either the 2004 RS/RAE review (as far as I can tell) or the current strategy, yet it is highly significant. I feel bad that I didn’t pick up on it – the current strategy’s authors should feel ashamed!

      1. Memory is a fickle thing. It is even worse when people ignore all that happened before Google and the PDF file.

        I know about the other document because I was asked to “edit” it. In reality, this meant that the person in charge was so upset by the original drafts that he demanded more professional input. I wrote much of the final report with input from a handful of good people. Not much of the original survived.

        The big difference between the two reports is probably in the recent introduction of safety issues. A decade ago this was less prominent.

        I have yet to read the new report. I suspect that it is as attached to reality as many of these exercises.

        Can anyone really hold up the NNI as a roaring success?

        Many of the ideas floated in the UK’s first report floundered because the academic community got into turf wars. Everyone wanted their nanotech centre and wanted to throw money at it.

        Follow thorough is, as always, more important that grandiose proclamations.

        I don’t like saying this, but there are just so many local factors at work here that observations from afar suffer from a lack of context. Not your fault. Indeed, good reason for us to pick over our own entrails.

        The failure of the government department to get the report up on a decent web site speaks volumes for its competence.

        1. Michael

          You make a fair point about the website problems this morning, for which I apologise. We’re due to move that site to more robust infrastructure shortly, and are ensuring that key reports such as this one are available on our main site as the primary source. On reflection, it was unwise to host them solely on the same experimental platform as the nanotechnology evidence-gathering site. We’ve taken some steps to improve availability in the short term, though I appreciate that’s somewhat after the horse has bolted. Sorry.

        2. Can’t agree more about the failure to get the web link working speaking volumes about competence here! In terms of local factors, I’m probably more clued in than you think, having worked closely with various people involved in nanotech in the UK for the past ten years. However, distance does lead to some of the granularity being blurred – and I chose to blur it further in an attempt to capture the larger picture. You are right though, on the ground the dynamic is complex and not always pretty – something that the US has in common with the UK!

  3. So it occurs to me that micro-funding is the natural strategic partner for science of the very small projects – surely this must have occurred to someone else?

  4. Andrew,
    I took the time to study the report carefully before reading your comments, for fear of having my opinion led (no reflection on you).

    The report started well, there were some positive aspects; I like and agree with the aim, “the economy and users will benefit.”

    The interdisciplinary nature of some of the proposed funding should be praised, such as the regenerative medicine programme.

    I was particularly encouraged by the proposed 35,000 new apprenticeships as The National Science Foundation projects a global demand of 2 million nanotechnologists and 6 million support personnel by 2015; can we be sure all 35,000 will be trained in nanotechnology. If so great, that will be a big help in us positioning ourselves to take advantage of the $1T potential market in 5 yrs time.

    Setting us The NanoLeadership Group is to be commended, at the mini IGT where UK Industry were canvassed many SMEs were crying out for more help, not just with tech transfer, but also with whole supply chain. This will show a great ROI particularly if we can benefit with help in securing FP-7 funding.

    However, I tend to agree with your criticisms above, Andrew. Like you, I don’t believe we are number 3 in the UK in terms of companies involved with nanotechnology in the world.

    Where were the mentions of China, the aggressive Russnano programme, Germany’s excellent Strategy for nanotech, which targets funding for research in areas of Industry Germany is strong in; pharma, automotive, engineering.

    I believe if we follow the strategy, we will surely continue down the path of being a service industry dominated country. Nanotechnology gives The UK the chance to dominate once again in manufacturing, it would be a great boost to the economy and jobs, but unlike the US strategy, I really feel we are missing an opportunity here.

    Why aim to lead the way in standardization? When the same outcome could be achieved by working with global, or European networks, benefiting from skills and funding from other countries. the same goes for the emphasis on legislation, safety, toxicology, regulation; I had also counted the volume of content here rather than on developing new product.

    Some of the funding aspects are really quite small, and one wonders what is being sacrificed to achieve those ring-fenced budgets; £5M for solar, is not going to make us a global leader. And funding of £11M for healthcare – won’t keep many programmes running, nanoscience is often heavily reliant on expensive capital equipment to do the research.

    Sadly; while the Aim is a good one, and there are some positive aspects, I see such an emphasis on legislation and safety, which could be achieved through alternative means, that I believe we are missing the point. Nanotechnology will be a life-changing interdisciplinary science which will have a huge impact on healthcare, energy, transport, communications amongst others, we have a great academic heritage, punching well above our weight, but this report does not give The UK enough support to get us into the Top Five players globally. Personally I think “the win” is big enough for us to give The UK Nanotechnology Strategy more of a boost.



    1. Interesting comment on standardisation. The concept of standardisation in an evolving condition of existence is in fact little more than absurd, simply because change is continual and as a consequence standardisation can never embrace the whole. In this respect worship of the delusional gods, Standardisation, Safety etc. etc. can be very harmful to the successful pursuit of economic research and development. However, nothing is black or white and there are obvious benefits to be gained by degrees of standardisation of some of the more stable activities of our existence. Unfortunately, it is often easier to concentrate on the processes of standardisation than it is truly innovative pursuits, mainly because the latter requires higher levels of intelligence (at the risk of being misunderstood, safety is a classic example of this concept). Balance is all important here and true economics should be about the balanced long term use of all available ‘commodities’ (however they might be defined) for ultimate good – as opposed to the current conception of economics as being achievement of maximum immediate gain for the few, at the expense of the majority and to hell with the future.

  5. Hi Andrew! I’ve finally skimmed the whole thing and was surprised with the overall tone which is pedestrian and the projected outcomes which are somewhat timid. As Tom said, “… I believe we are missing the point. Nanotechnology will be a life-changing interdisciplinary science which will have a huge impact on healthcare, energy, transport, communications amongst others, we have a great academic heritage, punching well above our weight …” This is the kind of language I would expect to see in report of this type, i.e. grand language with at least a few aspirational objectives along with the more mundane ones. It’s almost as if the precautionary principle has become the underpinning for all nanotechnologies strategies in the UK.

  6. Democratically elected ordinary individuals curse us with government driven by apparent good intentions but ill thought out in relation to the wholeness of which they are components; lack of understanding, as to how potentially damaging pursuit of objectives on a singular basis can be in the context of the whole, is potentially catastrophic. Unfortunately, my suspicion is that far greater forces are also at work that continually thwart and corrupt the course of true democratic government – power, through force of localized expediency and imperatives, corrupts and there are many powerful, and not necessarily constructive, groups active in modern society, seeking non-altruistic domination and increased influence.

    Technology does not significantly alter basic human nature and the character of the players on the global stage is important. Through what seems to be an inherent naivety in the British character, perhaps born of past experience of power and influence, Britain seems unaware of just how weak the foundations of our expectations are, we have to start being far more pragmatic in our approach to developing our society. Without research, development and manufacture of new products the UK is destined to continue its relentless slide down the path to ruin and all those good intentions and initiatives will be lost in the mists of time and the murky smog of influence by selfish power bases. There are sacrifices to be made but without them the future holds only greater deprivation for the majority.

    We don’t need more people in universities (although it does make unemployment in the short term look less horrendous) what we need is money spent on maximising the potential for the best to achieve and for research to be conducted by the best with the best technology available. We need control of the money supply by other than the corrupt, private activities of the Bank of England (and the FED); we don’t need corrupt overpaid bankers, who are sucking us, the ordinary tax payer, dry – a fraction of their bonuses could have saved Corus, funded research projects and all sorts of vital social projects now destined to curtailment due to lack of funds. We do need money to be spent on financing targeted learning, research, development and industry. We don’t need a vast bureaucratic government machine paying absurd sums for quangos, advisers, consultants, ‘administrators’ etc. etc. – the parasites of our society. We need to start demonstrating our dissatisfaction and to initiate REAL change. Sorry, bit of a tirade.

    We need to understand our present position, determine our objectives as a nation, re-think our approach to achieving them and target the paths to their successful fulfilment. Nanotechnology is just one area in which we desperately need to maximise our participation, attention and investment.

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