Why has the UK given up on nanotechnology?

In a recent roundup of nanotechnology activity across the world, the consultancy Cientifica puts the UK’s activity pretty much at the bottom of the class. Is this a fair reflection of the actual situation? Comparing R&D numbers across countries is always difficult, because of the different institutional arrangements and different ways spending is categorised; but, broadly, this feels about right. Currently, the UK has no actual on-going nanotechnology program. Activity continues in projects that are already established, but the current plans for government science spending in the period 2011- 2015, as laid out in the various research council documents, reveal no future role for nanotechnology. The previous cross-council program “Nanoscience engineering through application” has been dropped; all the cross-council programmes now directly reflect societal themes such as “ageing population, environmental change, global security, energy, food security and the digital economy”. The delivery plan for the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, previously the lead council for nanotechnology, does not even mention the word, while the latest strategy document for the Technology Strategy Board, responsible for nearer-market R&D support, notes in a footnote that nanotechnology is “now embedded in all themes where there are such opportunities”.

So, why has the UK given up on nanotechnology? I suggest four reasons.

1. The previous government’s flagship nanotechnology program – the network of Micro- and Nano- Technology centres (the MNT program) is perceived as having failed. This program was launched in 2003, with initial funding of £90 million, a figure which subsequently was intended to rise to £200 million. But last July, the new science minister, David Willetts, giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, picked on nanotechnology as an area in which funding had been spread too thinly, and suggested that the number of nanotechnology centres was likely to be substantially pruned. To my knowledge, none of these centres has received further funding. In designing the next phase of the government’s translational research centres – a new network of Technology and Innovation Centres, loosely modelled on the German Fraunhofer centres, it seems that the MNT program has been regarded as a cautionary tale of how not to do things, rather than an example to build on, and nanotechnology in itself will play little part in these new centres (though, of course, it may well be an enabling technology for things like a regenerative medicine).

2. There has been no significant support for nanotechnology from the kinds of companies and industries that government listens to. This is partly because the UK is now weak in those industrial sectors that would be expected to be most interested in nanotechnology, such as the chemicals industry and the electronics industry. Large national champions in these sectors with the power to influence government, in the way that now-defunct conglomerates like ICI and GEC did in the past, are particularly lacking. Companies selling directly to consumers, in the food and personal care sectors, have been cautious about being too closely involved in nanotechnology for fear of a consumer backlash. The pharmaceutical industry, which is still strong in the UK, has other serious problems to deal with, so nanotechnology has been, for them, a second order issue. And the performance of small, start-up companies based on nanotechnology, such as Oxonica, has been disappointing. The effect of this was brought home to me in March 2010, when I met the then Science Minister, Lord Drayson, to discuss on behalf of the Royal Society the shortcomings of the latest UK Nanotechnology Strategy. To paraphrase his response, he said he knew the strategy was poor, but that was the fault of the nanotechnology community, which had not been able to get its act together to convince the government it really was important. He contrasted this with the space industry, which had been able to make what to him was a very convincing case for its importance.

3. The constant criticism that the government was receiving about its slow response to issues of the safety and environmental impact of nanotechnology was, I am sure, a source of irritation. The reasons for this slow response were structural, related to the erosion of support for strategic science within government (as opposed to the kind of investigator led science funded by the research councils – see this blogpost on the subject from Jack Stilgoe), but in this environment civil servants might be forgiven for thinking that this issue had more downside than upside.

4. Within the scientific community, there were few for whom the idea of nanotechnology was their primary loyalty. After the financial crisis, when it was clear that big public spending cuts were likely and their were fears of very substantial cuts in science budgets, it was natural for scientists either to lobby on behalf of their primary disciplines or to emphasise the direct application of their work to existing industries with strong connections to government, like the pharmaceutical and aerospace industries. In this climate, the more diffuse idea of nanotechnology slipped down a gap.

Does it matter that, in the UK, nanotechnology is no longer a significant element of science and innovation policy? On one level, one could argue that it doesn’t. Just because nanotechnology isn’t an important category by which science is classified by, this doesn’t mean that the science that would formerly have been so classified doesn’t get done. We will still see excellent work being supported in areas like semiconductor nanotechnology for optoelectronics, plastic electronics, nano-enabled drug delivery and DNA nanotech, to give just a few examples. But there will be opportunities missed to promote interdisciplinary science, and I think this really does matter. In straitened times, there’s a dangerous tendency for research organisations to retreat to core business, to single disciplines, and we’re starting to see this happening now to some extent. Interdisciplinary, goal-oriented science is still being supported through the societal themes, like the programs in energy and ageing, and it’s going to be increasingly important that these themes do indeed succeed in mobilising the best scientists from different areas to work together.

But I worry that it very much does matter that the UK’s efforts at translating nanotechnology research into new products and new businesses has not been more successful. But this is part of a larger problem. The UK has, for the last thirty years, not only not had an industrial policy to speak of, it has had a policy of not having an industrial policy. But the last three years have revealed the shortcomings of this, as we realise that we aren’t any more going to be able to rely on a combination of North Sea oil and the ephemeral virtual profits of the financial services industry to keep the country afloat

7 thoughts on “Why has the UK given up on nanotechnology?”

  1. Richard,

    i think your last point hits the nail on the head. Countries such as Germany, Japan and the US have large technology hungry industries who are eager to assist and advise on translational research. The UK economy is more service based, and banks and coffee shops don’t gain any competitive advantage from nanotechnologies (or at least not in a direct visible bottom line manner).

    What worries me most is the increasing gap between academic excellence in the UK and the economic applications of this creativity. If the purpose of the UKs universities is merely to provide gainful employment for a small number of academics while churning out graduates who then become business analysts we have lost sight of something very important.

    Another worry is that the UK government reaction to the criticism of nanotechnology seems to have been to give up because it is ‘hard’ – a very different attitude to most other economies.

  2. Richard,

    Your comments about the political interface are interesting. Before Govt can listen it needs to hear. In the Science Matters debate any significant voice of industry or those who care about commercial viability was drowned out by the cacophony from the Science Community, which is a well organised and vociferous community especially when it comes to protecting their interests.

    At the time the response from industry, as ever, was apparently mooted. This was taken as tacit support for public money into University research. What Govt did not realise is that they did not hear from industry, and so therefore could not listen, not because of tacit support but because the patient was dead.

    There is no UK industrial community of any scale to justify the investment. But the amazing thing is that has been the position in the UK for almost 30 years, what is happening in nanotech is not that new I’m afraid.

    It is beginning to dawn on various communities that the symbiosis I have been banging on about for 20 years is almost impossible to create overnight and requires building on legacy capabilities. These are the very same legacy capabilities that we, as a country, have happily thrown away over a generation. So sadly UK Science should matter to the UK but it doesn’t.

    I agree with Tim’s assessment.

  3. The MNT funds were spread between some 22 sites in the UK in a spirit of fairness. Nanotechnology is an expensive science in terms of required experimental hardware. The UK could have taken a stronger lead had the same funds been allocated to 2-3 strong centres of excellence.

    It also saddens me that great scientific breakthroughs from the UK end up being commercially exploited elsewhere. The UK led the Industrial Revolution, and scientifically was a leader for Nuclear as well as micro electronics – nanotechnology would have been a great time to learn from past mistakes and the country taken a lead again.

    I agree with Richard, Tim and Nick.

  4. Interesting, so very poor strategic thinking from day one. Re exploitation I hear lots of effort put in to things like the Knowledge Transfer Networks, biz/uni partnerships but is it that these are poorly conceived and funded, or are they just a bad idea to start with? I wonder Is it about doing things better or doing different things? Spending more money or spending it differently?

  5. I’m not sure the thinking was poor from Day 1, Hilary; there was quite a good strategy, but it was never actually implemented. The key government document was the Taylor report on nanotechnology, published in 2002. You can still read this – at http://www.innovateuk.org/_assets/pdf/taylor%20report.pdf
    – and wonder what might have been!

    The Taylor report called for the establishment of 2-3 nanotechnology centres, situated in association with existing centres of academic nanotechnology strength, funded at a level of £25m /year, together with a number of other sensible measures. As Tom suggests, this is not what happened – a smaller amount of money was spread very much more thinly, and was made to cover microtechnology as well as nanotechnology.

    I don’t know why the MNT program as implemented turned out to be so different from the recommendations of the Taylor report. This was in the days of the DTI, before the formation of the Technology Strategy Board.

  6. I think a lot of noise has been made to get nano in the UK and it must continue till something substantial happens. I was on the Taylor DTI panel and also contributed to the current report. The problem to me is in the structure of funding which dosent truly encourage medicine bio and physical sciences to have unique programs amongst other issues. Also there has to be a realization that such efforts require infrastructure with a critical mass of around 200 persons sharing knowledge and resources.

  7. Jim, I couldn’t agree with you more about the lost opportunities at the medicine/bio/physical sciences interfaces. The cross-council program did at least generate the nanomedicine grand challenge (which was the largest single chunk of funding in that program) but this was still, when all’s said and done, only one call for funding. I think BBSRC and MRC could have done a lot more to engage; now, with no cross-council program at all, there’s not much indication that things will get better.

Comments are closed.