Nanotechnology – has the UK dropped the nano-ball?

by Andrew Maynard on July 8, 2011

I must confess to being rather saddened this morning to read Roger Highfield’s New Scientist blog on the state of nanotechnology in the UK.  Hot on the heels of reports that the company Nanoco is threatening to leave Britain for more fertile grounds, it left me wondering what has happened to the promise of ten years ago, when the UK was without doubt a player in the nanotech arena.  But the real sadness comes from that fact that, beyond the nanotech hype, nanoscale science and engineering are without doubt going to underpin some of the most significant technological breakthroughs of the coming years – and the UK is in severe danger of missing the boat.

Having left the UK eleven years ago to work in the US, I have retained a deep and personal interest in how Britain has invested in nanotechnology.  Back in 2004, the UK was at the forefront of the movement to develop economically strong and socially responsive nanotechnologies – the country was home to some of the world’s most prominent experts in the field; interdisciplinary research centers in Oxford and Cambridge were breaking new ground under internationally recognized leadership;  companies like Oxford-based Oxonica were paving the way to developing exciting new nanotech products; researchers in Edinburgh were leading the world in nanomaterial safety research; and the Royal Society set the pace globally developing this new technology responsibly.  Even in the US, where funding vastly outmatched that available in the UK, British research, innovation and action were having a sizable impact.

Working closely with the US and international nanotechnology community, I couldn’t help but be just a little bit proud of what the UK was achieving, and excited by where things were going.

So what went wrong?

Sitting here three thousand miles away, I’m not too sure.  Certainly rapid turnover in UK government nanotechnology leadership didn’t help sustain momentum here – the team that was leading the charge in the early 2000′s had moved on by the late 2000′s, with no clear succession plan in place.  What started as a clear vision and strategy appeared to get bogged down in uncomprehending bureaucracy.  R&D funding was not forthcoming and – more importantly – was not fully leveraged to ensure strategic impact.  And moves to ensure the safe development of nanotechnology ended up dominating the field- quite possibly at the expense of innovation.

There must be a lot more to the story than this, and I would be interested in hearing from people who have been in the thick of the rise and fall of UK nanotechnology over the past decade.  But without a doubt, the UK has moved from being a leader in the field to something of a straggler.

A personal experience I didn’t write about at the time foreshadowed this nearly two years ago.  I was in London for a series of events that happened to coincide with  a meeting of the UK Nanotechnologies Stakeholder Forum, overseen by DEFRA – the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs.  As I was in the area and had some time, I went along.  At the time I was Chief Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, and involved with working with and advising governments and organizations around the world on nanotechnology.  Given my work at the time, you’d have thought this might have been an opportunity for the forum to squeeze me for all I was worth on the current state of play of nanotechnology in the US and around the world.  As it was, I was relegated to being a passive observer – and not asked once to contribute to the meeting. (Just in case my memory was playing tricks I checked – these are the minutes of that meeting, where you can read my eloquently short contributions!).

The point here is not that I was ignored – that doesn’t bother me – but that the organizers of the main UK stakeholder forum on nanotechnology didn’t even realize that they could have pumped me for insider information on stuff that was directly relevant to nanotechnology in the UK.  Or they didn’t care – one of the other.

Two years on, nanotechnology in the UK is a shadow of its former self, and successful nanotech companies are threatening to move away – at a time when the commercial opportunities of nanoscale science and engineering are becoming increasingly clear.

Here I must clarify that I am often a little down on the brand of “nanotechnology” – there a lot of hype, re-branding and marketing associated with the term.  But beyond the brand, the science and engineering of working at the nanoscale – using the fundamental building blocks of everything in innovative and imaginative ways – is sound.  Whether in the area of materials, biology, or at the intersection of the two, the coming decades are going to be dominated by economies that have invested in the expertise, tools and frameworks to exploit nanoscale engineering and technology.

And in this emerging world, where will the UK be?

1 Hilary Sutcliffe July 8, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Yes, there is a deafening silence over here on nano, but I wondered if it was because I was not attending the right conferences.

Roger’s blog and the report mentions the ‘labyrinth of advisory, consultative and coordinating committees. These impede decision-taking, rather than facilitating it, and create confusion both within the research community, and at higher policy levels’. Do these refer to the Ministerial Group on Nano, the Nano Research Strategy Group, Nano Industries Leadership Group, Nano Issues Dialogue Group, Nano Engagement Group and the Nano Stakeholder Forum, or/and others. It would be a shame if this was the case as most of these were very good, certainly in theory and often also in practice.

As you say in a previous blog, they should have given us the foundation of a robust strategy, but maybe they did just confuse things? That surely though is a function of lack of direction and coordination from on high, so hope that such a thoughtful approach doesn’t look like a barrier to innovation or that’s the last we will see of such initiatives.

But on the commercialising end of things, I have some sympathy with the concept of incorporating nanotechnologies into grand challenge-led thinking as mentioned by Professor Richard Jones in this blog he reminded us he wrote time of the launch of the Nano Strategy: http://www.softmachines.org/wordpress/?p=683

He cites as an example Fighting Infection through Detection, a project area from the UK Technology Strategy Board. This looks to me like progress if nano were to take its place alongside other possible technological, systemic or other solutions to key problems. Though presumably much work has to be done on what it can do before the potential for many of these applications will become obvious and that’s the bit not being funded.

We still known for the governance and public engagement area, but that’s no good if there’s no research to govern or engage with.

2 Tim Harper July 8, 2011 at 3:48 pm

It’s rather depressing isn’t it? Despite tracking nanotechnology and markets for over ten years every offer of (free) assistance to the UK government from Cientifica was either ignored or turned down flat, and I know of many other UK nanotech ‘experts’ whose offers were met with similar attitudes.

This is in marked contrast to the large number of NGOs looking at nanotechnology who have been rather more open minded.

The reaction to the recent negative news by one of the people involved with ‘running’ UK nanotech was to claim that there “would appear to be an organised release of press items around this topic in the past few days.”

I’m not sure whether that reaction is simply naive or just Stalinist. Either way, the UK seems intent on airbrushing itself out of the picture.

3 Carbon nanotube August 1, 2011 at 2:45 am

If a big company leave a country that would be a moment of sorrow for that country . Need is to understand why they are leaving and if possible then system should be change a little bit to solve the company’s problems.

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