Responsible innovation still needs innovation

The UK government’s policies for nanotechnology seem to unfold in a predictable and cyclical way – some august body releases a weighty report criticising some aspect of policy, the government responds in a way that disappoints the critics, until the cycle is repeated with another critical report and a further response. The process began with the Royal Society/ Royal Academy of Engineering report in 2004, and several cycles on, last week we saw a new comprehensive government Nanotechnology Strategy launched (downloadable, if you’re lucky, from this somewhat flakey website). One might have thought that this process of dialectic might, by now, have led to a compelling and robust strategy, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

The immediate prompt for the strategy this time was the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) report ‘Novel materials in the environment: the case of nanotechnology’, from 2008 (see Deja view all over again for my view of that report). As its title suggests, that report had much to say about the potential risks posed by nanomaterials in the environment; it also had some rather interesting general points to make about the problems of regulating new technologies in the face of inevitable uncertainty. Unfortunately, it’s the former rather than the latter that dominates the new Nanotechnology Strategy. Having been criticised so much, ever since the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report, about the lack of action on the possibility of nanoparticle toxicity, it is defensiveness about this issue that dominates this strategy. Even then, the focus is narrowly on toxicology, missing yet again the important broader issues around life-cycle analysis that will determine the circumstances and extent of potential human exposure to nanomaterials.

Moving to the section on business, the stated aim is to have a transparent, integrated, responsible and skilled nanotechnologies industry. I can’t argue with transparent, responsible and skilled, but I wonder whether there’s an inherent contradiction in the idea of an integrated nanotechnologies industry. Maybe the clue as to why the industry is fragmented is in this phrase; the report talks about nanotechnologies, recognising that there are many technologies contained within this category, and it lists a dozen or more markets and sectors in which these technologies are being applied. Given that both the technologies and the markets are so diverse, why would one expect an integrated industry, or even think that is desirable?

The arm of government charged with promoting technological innovation in business and industry is the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), an agency of government which has an arms-length relationship with its sponsoring department, Business, Innovation and Skills. The TSB published its own strategy on nanotechnology last year – Nanoscale Technologies Strategy 2009-2012 (PDF here), and the discussion in the Nanotechnology Strategy draws extensively on this. This makes clear that TSB doesn’t really regard nanotechnology as something to be supported in itself – instead, they expect nanotechnology to contribute, where appropriate, to their challenge-led funding programs – the Fighting Infection through Detection competition is cited as a good example. One very visible funding initiative that TSB is responsible for, that is focused on nano- (and micro-) technologies, is the network of MNT capital facilities (though it should be noted that TSB only inherited this program, which was initiated in the late Department of Trade and Industry before the TSB was formed). It now seems that these facilities will receive little or no dedicated funding in the future; instead they will have to bid for project funding in open competition. There’s a hint that there might be an exception to this. Nanomedicine is an area identified for future investment, and this comment is tantalisingly juxtaposed to a reference to a forthcoming report to BIS from the prominent venture capitalist Hermann Hauser, which is expected to recommend (in a report due out today) that the government funds a handful of centres for translational research, modelled on the German Fraunhofer Institutes. I think it is fair to say, on the basis of reading this and the TSB Nanoscale Technologies Strategy, that TSB is at best ambivalent in its belief in a nanotechnology industry, looking instead for important applications of nanotechnology in a whole variety of different application areas.

The largest chunk of government funding going to nanotechnology in the UK – probably in the region of £40-50 million a year – comes through the research councils, and here the Nanotechnology Strategy is at its weakest. The lead agency for nanotechnology is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and the only initiatives that are mentioned are ones that have already been launched, as part of the minimum fulfillment of the EPSRC’s most recent nanotechnology strategy, published in 2006 (available here as a Word document). It looks like the Research Councils UK priority theme Nanoscale Science: Engineering through Application has run its course, and nanotechnology funding from the research councils in the future will have to come either from standard, responsive mode proposals or as part of the other mission programmes, such as Sustainable Energy Systems, Ageing: lifelong health and wellbeing, or the widely trailed new priority theme Resilient Economy.

Essentially, then, with the exception of a possible new TSB-led initiative in nanomedicine, it looks like there will be no further targeted interventions specifically for nanotechnology in the UK. For this reason, the section in the strategy on public engagement is particularly unsatisfying. We’ve seen a growing consensus about public engagement with science in the UK, which is simply not reflected in this strategy. This is that public engagement mustn’t simply be seen as a way of securing public acquiescence to new technology; instead it should be a genuine dialogue which aims to ensure that innovation is directed at widely accepted societal goals, carried out “upstream”, in the word introduced in an influential report some years ago. But without some upstream innovation to engage with, you can’t have upstream engagement.