Grey Goo won’t get you across the Valley of Death

The UK’s main funder of academic nanoscience and nanotechnology – the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) – has published a report of a review of its nanotechnology portfolio held last summer. The report – released in a very low key way last November – is rather critical of the UK’s nanotechnology performance, noting that it falls below what the UK would hope for both in quality and in quantity, and recommends an urgent review of the EPSRC’s strategy in this area. This review is just getting under way (and I’m one of the academics on the working party).

Unlike many other countries, there is no dedicated nanotechnology program in the UK (the Department of Trade and Industry does have a program in micro- and nano- technology, but this is very near-term and focused on current markets and applications) . With the exception of two (small scale, by international comparisons) nanotechnology centres, at Oxford and Cambridge, nanoscience and nanotechnology proposals are judged in competition with other proposals in physics, chemistry and materials science. There’s no earmarked funding for nanotechnology, and the amount of funding given to the area is simply the aggregate of lots of decisions on individual proposals. This means, of course, that even estimating the total size of the UK’s nanotechnology spend is a difficult task that depends on a grant-by-grant judgement of what is nanotechnology and what is not.

This situation isn’t entirely bad; it probably means that the UK has been less affected by the worst excesses of academic nanohype than countries in which funding has been much more directly tied to the nanotechnology brand. But it does mean that the UK’s research in this area has lacked focus, it’s been developed without any long term strategy, and there’s been very little attempt to build research capacity in the area. Now is probably not a bad time to look ahead at where the interesting opportunities in nanotechnology will be, not next year, but in ten to fifteen years time, and try refocus academic nanoscience in a way that will create those longer term opportunities.

One of the perceptions mentioned in the report was that the quality of work was rather patchy, particularly in areas like nanomaterials, with some work of very moderate quality being done. One panelist on the theme day review memorably called this sort of research “grey goo” – work that is neither particularly exciting scientifically, but which, despite its apparent applied quality, isn’t particularly likely to be commercialised either. Everyone in government is concerned about the so-called “valley of death” – that trough in the cycle of commercialisation of a good idea which comes after the basic research has been done, but when products and revenues still seem a long way off. Much government intervention aims to get good ideas across this melodramatically named rift, but this carries a real danger. Clearly, funding high quality basic science doesn’t help you here, but there’s a horribly tempting false syllogism – that if a proposal isn’t interesting fundamental science, then it might be just the sort of innovative applied research that gets the good ideas closer to market. Well, it might be, but it’s probably more likely simply to be mediocre “sort-of-applied” work that will never yield a commercial product – it might be “grey goo”. I don’t think this is solely a UK problem – in my view every funding agency should ask themselves: ‘are we funding “grey goo” in a doomed attempt to get across the “valley of death”?’

9 thoughts on “Grey Goo won’t get you across the Valley of Death”

  1. I’m not convinced that the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council should be worrying too much about the valley of death.

    It is way too early to second guess every application of nanoscience (or their ethical implications!). As long as consistently good research is being performed then there will always be plenty of ideas for entrepreneurs and businesses to commercialise. I think it was the Cambridge IRC proposal which addressed the commercialization by promising only “world class research” and that is what the EPSRC should also be encouraging.

  2. Absolutely right, Tim, I quite agree. Unfortunately I’m not sure that EPSRC’s paymasters in the Department of Trade and Industry always take the same enlightened view. EPSRC themselves, though, are very aware of the need to be looking some way ahead, and doing the science now for others to commercialise later, so if they can resist a bit of political pressure I’m sure they’ll do the right thing.

  3. The best pragmatic solution might be to focus on a few applications and fund all the good and bad proposals directed towards them. If I were a funding agency in the Middle East I might focus on petroleum membranes. In China maybe water purification. Britian has one of the best biotech industries so maybe biomemetic and pharmecuticals are the way to go. This is oversimplified. With efforts directed towards a few targets, the illusion of progress might attract more funding than does a much more efficient but product-less research methodology.

  4. Phillip, your comment very much echoes a current discussion in the UK. Indeed, I agree that the strength of the pharmaceuticals sector here, and of biomedical research more generally, makes that a very obvious choice if the UK is to focus. Two things make me cautious about taking this argument too far, though.

    Firstly, there’s a bit of a conspiracy to downplay the size and importance of the UK as a country. The first instinct of the British is to run their country down, and we do this so effectively that everyone believes us. Nonetheless, the UK is a large and rich country, somewhere between 4th and 6th in the ranking of economies according to how you do the PPP conversion, with a pretty enviable record in science. At the meeting on Monday, someone made just this argument and said , well, of course we can’t compete with the likes of Singapore, we must specialise, and only after the meeting did it occur to me what an absurd thing this is to say – Singapore, for all its many virtues and its impressive single-mindedness when it comes to science, is an economy less than 1/10 the size of the UK, and it’s hopeless defeatism to say we can’t compete with them. (Which is not at all to say, of course, that we can’t learn some important lessons from them).

    The second thing is that, when one aims to specialise, one looks at the sectors in which one is strong already. But we’re talking about doing the science now that will be commercialised, in many cases, maybe ten years down the line, and on that timescale, recent history tells us, entirely new large companies and even new industrial sectors can appear. For this reason one needs to be careful about closing down options prematurely.

  5. I studied the formation of industrial clusters last year. At a certain point of inflection early on in the evolution of an industry, top-down investments and local personnel are augmented/superceded by capital from abroad and the region’s behaviour takes on a life of its own. I guess the key is to position nanotech infrastructures optimally just before resources start to pour into a given application and hope you get the cluster.

    Right now a broad stroke makes sense because most nanotech industries are immature (though you wouldn’t want to dump cash into semiconductor plants in an attempt to go head to head against Taipei). A decade from now Britain should be able to successfully compete with Singapore in every nanofield, but also Boston, Silicon Valley, LA, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Bangalore, Seoul, etc.?

  6. Of course your general point is right, Phillip, and the UK has done pretty well by specialising up to now and ought to try and continue that. My mild scepticism simply arises because the cluster theory you mention is so much conventional wisdom that I suspect it is sometimes applied in rather an unreflective way. An example from close to home – our local region, Yorkshire and Humberside, has had an economy dominated by regional clusters in textiles and steel. The regional government agency deduces from this that it ought to be doing technology transfer in support of these clusters and allocates its cash on the basis of how much this spending might help these industries. One can’t help wondering whether this isn’t simply throwing good money after bad, and instead of asking what dominated the regional economy ten years in the past maybe they should be asking what kind of entirely new industry they might hope to put in place ten years in the future.

  7. Cluster funding only makes sense pre-cluster formation. A century or two too late for textiles and steel industries. Your politicians are retarded.

  8. To use a phrase popular here a few years ago, you might well think that, Phillip, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

  9. A video presentation could be compiled with content explaining the very basics of how new industries form (including the evolution of nearby textile and steel industries in their early stages). A calculator demonstarting how each pound invested now in nanotech will return over the next decade 5X or 8X or whatever the spinoffs amount to. Lots of animations and cute animal puppets; bright primary colours to keep the toddlers, er, politicians interested.

    Worse case scenario there are R+D investments available for steel and textile industries. Materials sciences and mechanical engineering to transform steel plants. There are nanotech textile improvements too. Militaries, pro athletes and space agencies would all welcome new fabric properties in the clothes they use. I would think many mining disasters could be averted if a screen could be developed that actually blocked out CO2.

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