Some reflections on UK nanotechnology policy

The think-tank Demos today released a report, Governing at the Nanoscale: People, policies and emerging technologies. I was one of the speakers at the launch event in London. This, more or less, is what I said.

It’s a pleasure to be asked to give my reactions to “Governing at the Nanoscale”, the latest of a very interesting set of pamphlets from Demos about the relationship between science and society. I’m responding as a scientist who participated in the public engagement aspects of the project, so I’d like to make some personal comments about the experience of public engagement from the scientist’s point of view. Then I’ll go on to make some more general comments about the way UK policy in this area has developed.

As you have seen from the film of the project, I had a lively time at the “Nanoscientists meet nanopublics” event held in the autumn. I’m struck by the editing of the film, which makes it clear that engaging with the public doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with them! But scientists can derive a great deal from this sort of event, which prompt them to develop a richer picture of the relationships between the science they do themselves and the wider field that they work in with society and the economy.

For me, this event wasn’t an isolated one – it was one of some 21 public engagement events of one kind or another that I’ve taken part in in person over the last couple of years. I mention this not just to blow my own trumpet, but to emphasise the time taken up by a serious attempt to become involved in public engagement work. The rewards of this kind of effort are very great, but to be realistic one also needs to recognise the considerable disincentives that the way science is organised in the UK places in the way of this kind of activity.

Institutionally, public engagement brings no reward at all to the scientists who participate in it. University scientists working in physics, chemistry and materials science departments live and work in an atmosphere of insecurity – the financial pressures on these departments is very great and the threat to their future is very real, as we see in the recent machinations over the closure of Sussex’s chemistry department – the former home, of course, of Britain’s most famous Nanotechnology Nobel Laureate, Sir Harry Kroto. In this atmosphere, academic scientists need to focus on two things – directly raising contract and grant money to keep their departments afloat financially, and putting out high impact academic publications, to ensure a high grade in the Research Assessment Exercise, on which the very survival of departments depends. Public engagement is good for the discipline as a whole, but a Head of Department advising a young scientist is likely to urge him or her to concentrate on getting grants and writing papers for the RAE. Recent policy developments – the advent of full economic costing and the possibility of the RAE being replaced by a metrics-driven system – will only exacerbate this problem. If policy makers want scientists to engage with the public, something needs to be done about these systematic structural disincentives.

I’d like to move on to the more general question of the way policy has evolved in this sphere in connection with nanotechnology. To be blunt, the story here is of an opportunity presented to the UK to take a world lead, an opportunity that has been allowed to trickle away.

The Royal Society/ Royal Academy of Engineering report, published in the summer of 2004, was widely welcomed both in the UK and abroad. It made some very definite recommendations; here I’ll concentrate on three issues. On the possibility of the toxicity of some nanoparticles, the report recommended the setting up and funding of a centre for nanotoxicology studies. Similarly, on issues surrounding the more general relationships between nanotechnology and society, the report recommended funding a centre. Finally, the report recommended a well funded and coordinated program of public engagement. I think many of us were profoundly disappointed by the government’s response to this report, published in spring of last year, which simply rejected the first two of these recommendations.

Let me take the nanotoxicity issue first, as this is proving a case study in how to make a relatively small and manageable problem much bigger than necessary. “Is it safe?’ is the first question that the public, journalists or anyone asks about new products and new processes. It’s not a profound problem, but it needs an evidence base to answer. The report published by the Nanotechnology Research Coordination Group last autumn was in many ways a very good document, with a very good overview of the knowledge gaps and the research needed to fill them. The problem was that it simply failed to provide a mechanism to fill those gaps, simply hoping that good proposals would come to the research councils for funding by peer review. This seems to me to be a category error – the science we need to underpin regulation isn’t necessarily good science as defined by peer review, and if the capacity to do the research isn’t there one can’t just expect it to appear spontaneously.

On the broader relationships between nanotechnology and society, the story is similarly depressing. In the presence of so many excellent social scientists, I’ll not rehearse all the arguments for why these kinds of studies are a good idea, but I would like to pick up two important aspects. We’ll come to public engagement in a moment, but one thing my experience so far tells me is that debates about the impact of nanotechnology need to be informed by clear thinking about plausible possible futures, thinking that needs to be underpinned both by accurate science and an understanding of society and economics that goes beyond the naiveity displayed by a lot of futurism. The second point I’d make is that currently government is spending very large sums of money in an attempt to realise economic gains from its science investment. This spending is informed by tacit or explicit models of innovation, but are these models being critically tested? As we see focused and well resourced centres being set up to study these issues in the USA and in the rest of the Europe, in the UK we have a handful of excellent but small-scale projects, but no centre, no ear-marked funding, no coordination.

Public engagement is perhaps the one area where the picture is not so bleak, and in which the UK has taken a lead. A number of significant efforts, some government funded through schemes like Sciencewise, some, like Nanojury UK, initiatives from outside government, have been carried out. The government’s draft public engagement strategy – published last summer – sets out an overall framework, and a body – the Nanotechnology Engagement Group (which I chair) – has been charged with coordinating and disseminating good practise across government departments and agencies. The challenge now is designing institutional structures so that policy making really is informed by all this public engagement activity. In the key spending organisations – the research councils, led by EPSRC, in what used until recently to be the Innovation Directorate of the DTI, and in the MNT program, I don’t yet see those institutional structures in place.

In EPSRC, there are promising developments in the shape of the new committee chaired by Lord Winston set up to advise Council on public engagement issues. But, in the sphere of nanotechnology, the problem is that there isn’t actually a nanotechnology program for insights from public engagement to shape. The strategy of EPSRC with respect to nanotechnology has been, in essence, not to have a strategy. Has this worked? There are real concerns that the UK is not doing well in nanoscience and nanotechnology. A pair of international studies, commissioned by EPSRC, tell a depressing story. Most recently, we’ve had the report “International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy 2005”, which said “One particular area still requiring attention is nanoscience – it has become a very large area of emphasis worldwide, yet the UK lacks coherence and international visibility in the field.” A similar review for chemistry a few years ago told a similar story: “Nanoscience and technology in the UK clearly lags…It is, however, an area that requires seamless integration of electrical engineering, applied physics, chemistry, and mechanical engineering, and access to specialised facilities: it thus represents the type of multicentre, multidiscipline research at which the UK is constitutively weak. “ Recognising this weakness, EPSRC has set up a working party to consider a new strategy, which will report his autumn, but I’m left with the worry that there is a real structural problem emerging here.

Another point of view might be that what’s important here is that we succeed in making money from nanotechnology, and these societal and public engagement issues are just a distraction from this economic imperative. Clearly the government takes the innovation agenda extremely very seriously, but I would argue that it is a very serious mistake to suppose that the innovation agenda can be isolated from these societal issues. The most obvious connection is, of course, that the public that we’re engaging with is the very same public that will be the customers for the nano-enabled products we’re hoping for, and if they don’t buy the products then no-one will make any money. We hear frequent references to the sorry saga of agricultural biotechnology. A less obvious connection is stressed by my colleague Stephen Wood. It is also the public, working in the many economic sectors that will be affected by nanotechnology, all the way from directly science-based industries to all the areas in which the products of nanotechnology might be put into use, who will, by embracing or failing to embrace nano-enabled products and processes in their working practises, determine their economic impact. In any case I’d prefer to put the issue in a positive way – in our system, societal needs and desires are delivered through market mechanisms, so achieving consensus on what society wants from nanotechnology will as a by-product lead to the desired economic gains.

It’s worth taking a look at the history of the UK’s programme for promoting the commercialisation of nanotechnology. Again, this features a report with strong recommendations that were not followed. The 2002 Taylor report advised the immediate establishment of at least two National Nanotechnology Fabrication Centres. The government instead chose to implement a distributed, network, approach – the Micro- and Nano- Technology Initiative. Is this working? It’s probably too early to judge the economic impact directly, but again we can look at the perceptions of those from abroad. In September 2005 The US based consultancy LUX research published “Ranking the Nations: Nanotech’s Shifting Global Leaders.” This ranked the UK 12th out of 14th by measures of “Technology Development Strength”, not just behind Japan, the USA and South Korea, but behind France, Australia and Russia, and leading only India and China. One can argue, of course, about the validity and robustness of these measures, but these perceptions have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, as inward investment decisions are made on the basis of this kind of reports.

I’ve deliberately widened my discussion beyond public engagement and societal issues, because I think there is a depressing pattern emerging – a pattern of lack of commitment, institutional fragmentation, and a tendency to diffuse and unfocused efforts, which gives rise to the perception from outside the UK of a fundamental lack of seriousness.

One might ask why this matters. My answer isn’t so much that I believe that nanotechnology will soon be a one trillion dollar industry or will revolutionise this or that aspect of society. What’s more important is that nanotechnology is a test case for a new kind of science, fundamentally interdisciplinary, motivated by applications. How do we arrange to do goal-oriented science that delivers societal needs via market mechanisms with the broad support and consent of the population? This to me is the central question that underlies “Governing at the Nanoscale”.

6 thoughts on “Some reflections on UK nanotechnology policy”

  1. I thought it was pretty funny that Demos (in the linked page) listed the iPod Nano as an example of nanotechnology!

  2. I suspect that Demos are just as interested in the way the iPod is branded as in the technology it actually contains. Of course, by a strict application of a NNI nanotechnology definition flash memory from a 65 nm process is nanotechnology, and in the far east, where the connection between conventional microelectronics and the word nanotechnology is much more strongly made this would be quite unproblematic. It’s ironic, though, that to most physicists it’s the old iPod rather than the iPod Nano that’s unquestionably nano-enabled, by virtue of the giant magnetoresistance read head in its hard disk.

  3. In regards profit and Nanotech.

    One of the great myths regarding Microelectronics is about profits. One of the favourite saying of Peter Drucker a famous management guru, is that Hi-tech industries overall has made Zero profits when losing investments are taken into account!

    Now, this could mean that as Microelectronics has been around for 30 years, it will make money only in the next 20 years. Whatever, this demostrates how difficult it is for even capitalism to make technology pay!

    My opinion regarding Nanotech is that making money will be more self evident as it happening at the moment as a ENABLING TECHNOLOGY.

    What I mean by this is that First Stage Nanotech is hybridization of existening technologies like Microelectronics / Medical Biotech / Materials science and energy. Therefore pioneering entire new fields with their enormous startup costs will be avoided.

    Regarding Scientific funding of Nanotech. The real problem has been the massive fall of students doing science. This makes it difficult for ANY goverment to justify Science spending. I believe that the present Labour Government has been an improvement over the old Tory regime, but that is no saying much.

    A solution maybe an amateur outgrowth of Nanotech might emerge like the personal computer industry in the 1970’s. Depends how cheap Atomic Force Microscopes / experiments with colloids/ printing processes etc .

    An amateur mathematician

  4. Richard,

    Glad to see that you’ve posted your talk from Thursday’s event, which I thought was a brilliant tour d’horizon, and a real highlight of the day. You neatly punctured the sense of complacency that seems to have crept into the UK policy discourse around nano in the two years since the Royal Society/RAEng report. And I was interested in the parallels you drew between the UK’s somewhat half-hearted approach to exploring the societal dimensions of nano and its wider failure to support the sector through more effective financial and institutional arrangements.

    This goes to the heart of a question that underpins a lot of Demos’ work in this area (and which we tried to unpack in our report ‘The Public Value of Science’): about the extent to which increased economic investment in science and the creation of more open and deliberative cultures of innovation can be mutually reinforcing. On your account, the UK’s track record with nano may not prove any positive relationship between the economic and social/democratic dimensions of innovation, but it certainly shows that it’s possible to do both pretty badly, which is a rather depressing state of affairs.

  5. Zelah, I’m not sure how true your statement is about hi-tech industries having made no profits at all actually is, but nonetheless it raises a very interesting and important point. Even if the computer industry itself had made no profit at all, that doesn’t mean its contribution to the economy was zero. Far from it – besides the fact that a company making no profit can still hugely contribute to the economy via the wages it pays to all its employees, technological innovation itself brings productivity improvements in lots of other sectors – so computers have led to the development of entirely new sectors of the economy. Likewise, if nanotechnology is to make an economic impact, it’s not so much through a few nanotechnology companies that that impact will come, but through many other economic sectors making their activities more productive using nanotechnology.

  6. It’s actually a theorem of economics that even extremely profitable high tech industries don’t make (much) money when total investments are counted.

    As a technology comes onto the horizon and looks like it will become profitable eventually, people will invest in it. They will collectively increase their investments as long as the net future value of the investment’s profits is greater than the amount invested. The result is that people invest “too early” and actually waste the full value of the expected future profits in premature investments.

    The same problem arises with homesteading – standard economic analysis emphasizes how homesteading doesn’t work as people acquire and develop land prematurely in order to capture the eventual future value of the land, and end up wasting that whole value.

    This phenomenon is called ‘rent seeking’.

    Here’s a description from economist Robin Hanson:

    “Consider a typical as-yet-untried investment project, becoming more and more attractive with time as technology improves and the world market grows larger. If there wasn’t much point in attempting such a project very long after other teams tried, then a race to be first should make sure the project is attempted near when investors first expect such attempts to produce a competitive rate of return. This should happen even if the project returns would be much greater if everyone waited longer. The extra value the project would have if everyone waited is burned up in the race to do it first.

    “Thus most of the return above the market return in our supply and demand figure above should be burned up, leaving the average return at about the market return. Thus in the low demand mode the height of the demand curve is relatively unimportant. If anticipated, a technology which makes a moderate number of investment projects much more productive may have no effect on growth rates or on rates of return.”

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