The centrepiece of the UK’s publically funded nanotechnology effort has been the Department of Trade and Industry’s Micro and Nanotechnology manufacturing initiative (MNT). This had a high profile launch in July 2003 in a speech by the science minister, Lord Sainsbury, with an initial commitment of £90 million. When, last year, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced an increase of DTI nanotechnology funding to £200 million, the future of the MNT program seemed assured. But a close reading of recent announcements from the DTI make it clear that whatever extra funding they may be putting into nanotechnology, it’s not going into the MNT program.
Technology and innovation policy at the DTI is now informed by a Technology Strategy Board, made up largely from figures from industry and venture capital. This board’s first annual report (PDF) was published in November 2005, and contained this recommendation:
“We also recommend incorporating nanotechnology in the competitions for underpinning technologies, such as advanced materials, to avoid confusion. It is important, however, that the DTI keeps track of expenditure on nano-projects to be able to honour its commitments to Parliament in this area.”
It’s now clear that this recommendation has been followed. The spring competition for collaborative R&D, announced here, and to be formally launched on April 26th, does not include a separate micro- and nano- theme. Instead, the call is based around what the DTI calls innovation platforms – societal challenges which many technologies can be combined to address. Undoubtedly, some of these areas will call for nano- enabled solutions. Novel Technologies For Low-Cost, High Efficiency Electronics And Lighting Systems mentions plastic electronics and light emitting diodes as potential technologies of interest, while Low Carbon Energy Technologies talks about the need for novel solar cells.
This is an interesting shift of emphasis. The MNT program had few friends in the world of academic nanoscience and technology; it always seemed happier with the micro- than the nano- , and the insistence that programs be business-oriented seemed on occasion to shade into a positive antipathy to academic nanoscience and led to the perception that the program was considerably friendlier to consultants than either technologists or scientists. On the other hand, the idea of building an applied research program around problems to be solved, rather than technological solutions looking for problems, seems one that is well worth trying.
What needs to happen for this to work? Firstly, the ongoing MNT program needs to become much more effective at connecting the best parts of the UK nanoscience base to potential users of the new technologies, and it needs to give more impression of being a little more forward looking in the technologies it’s sponsoring. Then the Technology Program is going to have to work hard to make sure that the right scientists are engaged and nanotechnology gets an appropriate share of the resources, meeting the very specific commitment to a certain level of spending on nanotechnology made by the Minister.
It’s going to be important to get this right. As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, there’s growing evidence of an external perception of the UK nanotechnology program as being diffuse, unfocused and ineffective. Given the general strength of the UK science base, the UK should be in a much better position; there’s a real danger that this could turn into a big missed opportunity.