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”?’