Moving on

For the last two years, I’ve been the Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology for the UK’s Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC), the government agency that has the lead responsibility for funding nanotechnology in the UK. I’m now stepping down from this position to return to a new, full-time role at the University of Sheffield; EPSRC is currently in the process of appointing my successor.

In these two years, a substantial part of a new strategy for nanotechnology in the UK has been implemented. We’ve seen new, Grand Challenge programmes targeting nanotechnology for harvesting solar energy, and nanotechnology for medicine and healthcare, with a third programme looking for new ways of using nanotechnology to capture and utilise carbon dioxide shortly to be launched. At the more speculative end of nanotechnology, the “Software Control of Matter” programme received supplementary funding. Some excellent individual scientists have been supported through personal fellowships, and looking to the future, the three new Doctoral Training Centres in nanotechnology will produce, over the next five years, up to 150 additional PhDs in nanotechnology over and above EPSRC’s existing substantial support for graduate students. After a slow response to the 2004 Royal Society report on nanotechnology, I think we now find ourselves in a somewhat more defensible position with respect to funding of nano- toxicology and ecotoxicology studies, with some useful projects in these areas being funded by the Medical Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council respectively, and a joint programme with the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency about to be launched. With the public engagement exercise that was run in conjunction with the Grand Challenge on nanotechnology in medicine and healthcare, I think EPSRC has gone substantially further than any other funding agency in opening up decision making about nanotechnology funding. I’ve found this experience to be fascinating and rewarding; my colleagues in the EPSRC nanotechnology team, led by John Wand, have been a pleasure to work with. I’ve also had a huge amount of encouragement and support from many scientists from across the UK academic community.

In the process, I’ve learned a great deal; nanotechnology of course takes in physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as elements from engineering and medicine. I’ve also come into contact with philosophers and sociologists, as well as artists and designers, from all of whom I’ve learnt new insights. This education will stand me in good stead in my new role at Sheffield – as the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation I’ll be responsible for the health of research right across the University.

10 thoughts on “Moving on”

  1. Hi Richard!

    1. Will your new role allow you time to blog as you have in the past?

    2. Do you have any plans about how to deal with the recession and its affects within the Nanotech sector in the UK?

    3. Finally, what would you consider a sucessful outcome in regards to the investment that the UK has put into Nanotech?

    Regards Zelah

  2. I’m sure time will be an issue, as, to be honest, it has been for at least the last six months, when I’ve been less diligent with the blog than I would have liked. On the other hand, I’m occasionally surprised and pleased to find out that quite unexpected people read the blog, so I won’t let it go lightly.

    As to the future of nanotechnology in economic hard times: it’s conventional wisdom that one should continue to invest in R&D in the bad times, so that when recovery comes along you have new products ready. On the other hand, there will clearly be a huge squeeze on public expenditure in coming years in countries like the USA and the UK, so public spending is going to come under scrutiny. I think those areas of nanotechnology, and other technologies, that offer real solutions to our big problems, that are only going to get more pressing, will continue to be supported. The legacy of the bubble years, though, will be that expansive and over-hyped claims will be more carefully scrutinised.

    A successful outcome, simply stated, would be measured by excellent science outputs, really good scientists, young and old, attracted into the field, some of this new science being turned into products and processes that do indeed contribute to solving some of those big societal problems.

  3. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am very sceptical about the feasibility of the MNT vision of nanofactories, certainly on the timescales suggested by their proponents, for reasons such as these. This scepticism is shared by almost all the nanoscientists I know or who have expressed an opinion in print. On the other hand, there are a group of self-identified transhumanists, for whom Michael Anissimov is an eloquent spokesman, for whom a confidence in the imminent arrival of MNT is part of the belief package. A frequent response from such people to scepticism from scientists about MNT is that such opinions aren’t worth considering because the sceptics in question haven’t read Drexler’s book, Nanosystems, in detail. I have (as Michael acknowledges), though it’s true that most of my sceptical nanoscientist colleagues haven’t. This argument cuts two ways, though -Nanosystems is quite a technical book and in order to be able to read it critically I think you need to have read quite a lot of physics, chemistry and materials science at degree level or above. With perhaps a couple of exceptions, I don’t see evidence that transhumanist proponents of MNT have invested enough time in those background studies.

  4. Let me state again that I emphatically do not consider the arrival of MNT to be imminent, only plausible. I see MNT as one possibility in a space of increasingly precise manufacturing systems that can build their own components, moving towards 100% self-replication closure.

  5. It is funny to watch British opposition claim G.Brown is a terrorizing megalomaniacical monster a breath after branding him as haplessly simple Mr.Bean.
    Richard, maybe now that you are out of a conflict-of-interest you can comment candidly about whether you think the leader with the most economics knowledge among leaders on Earth (Our Canadian PM probably beats him but it comes with a Chicago School tinge while GBs expertise is international development) is better for UK science and industry R+D than the other guy (no cable so I can’t watch your Parliament).

  6. The big issue for UK science in the next few years is simply the fact that the public finances are in such a mess (partly from the cost of bailing out the banks, but more because the UK government got used to receiving large revenues from the financial sector which, in retrospect, weren’t based on real wealth creation). A minor side-effect of the recent political shenanigans is that control of the science budget has been seized by Peter Mandelson, who is keen to push a program of industrial activism, and is clearly now the second most powerful figure in the UK government. I suspect science will do better in this environment than it would with a Conservative government with a primary focus on reducing government expenditure, though either way there’s going to be an even greater emphasis on looking for research with demonstrable economic impact.

  7. The microchip is the product with the longest supply chain so probably biggest bang for (S.Korea’s) GDP buck to buy/manufacture them. But clearly GDP not everything. Typical employment intensive industries are healthcare, education, wind-turbines, all small businesses…

    Richard, do you or does anyone know about the manufacturing of fusion proteins? Hoffman-LaRoche owns the rights to OX40:Ig. It was scheduled for human trials in 2004…looks like the kind of treatment that can stop cytokine storm cold, but I’m not sure if you can stockpile proteins (powdered form), if they are cheap enough to stockpile a global supply, if any artificial proteins are even being manufactured now…

  8. Phillip, I don’t know about the specific molecule you’re referring to, but I do know that such protein constructs represent a very significant fraction of drugs currently under development. Manufacturing these is significantly more challenging than small molecule drugs, but a number of companies round the world do have that expertise.

    My apologies for being so slow to respond, and indeed for general neglect of the blog – it’s been a busy time for me.

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