A new strategy for UK Nanotechnology

It was announced this morning that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the lead government agency for funding nanotechnology in the UK, has appointed a new Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology. This forms part of a new strategy, published (in a distinctly low key way) earlier this year. The strategy announces some relatively modest increases in funding from the current level, which amounts to around £92 million per year, much of which will be focused on some large-scale “Grand Challenge” projects addressing areas of major societal need.

An editorial (subscription required) in February’s issue of Nature Nanotechnology lays out the challenges that will face the new appointee. By a number of measures, the UK is underperforming in nanotechnology relative to its position in world science as a whole. Given the relatively small sums on offer, focusing on areas of existing UK strength – both academically and in existing industry – is going to be essential, and it’s clear that the pharmaceutical and health-care sectors are strong candidates. Nature Nanotechnology’s advice is clear: “Indeed, getting the biomedical community— including companies — to buy into a national strategy for nanotechnology and health care should be a top priority for the nano champion.”

13 thoughts on “A new strategy for UK Nanotechnology”

  1. As always, interesting word which send the crew running to learn more. At least the EPSRC is saying something, perhaps not everything that everyone can agree with, but a position just the same.
    If I may, I wish to relate an encounter I had last night with a young woman, Sara, from London. We were standing on a dock looking at the sun leave for the day. The conversation came to each of our roles, and me, at every chance I get, tout the program and its benefits.
    Sara related how she is setting her main interest aside, animation, getting her teaching certificate to teach elementary school. She said her motivation surrounded the issue of too many teachers concentrating their students minds on studying for the National Exams rather than teaching students how to learn. She is part of a quiet revolt coming to the British school system, one dedicated to teaching the young how to learn.
    With the advances coming in the technology, and more minds needing to cooperate and exploit it, I would suggest this is a good thing.
    As an aside, my daughter advises me that I am expected to be in London this Fall, I hope to make a pilgrimage to your Lab.

  2. Martin,

    I sincerely hope that you’re correct and that a “quiet revolt [is] coming to the British school system”. Indeed, let’s hope it’s not so quiet! Harry Kroto had some very interesting things to say on this topic (amongst others) in a recent piece in the Education section of the Guardian (see “The wrecking of British science” ).

    One of my favourite recent quotes on the matter is from a book entitled “Affluenza” by Oliver James: “In most of the developed world today, you learn in order to earn. Especially in English-speaking cultures, education has been hijacked by business. The goal is to create good little producers and consumers, whereas it should be an enquiring mind, capable of both scholarship and of a playful, self-determined, and emotionally productive life.” Of course, this is not far from outright heresy in terms of the the Treasury’s view of the worth of primary, secondary, or tertiary education…

    [Sorry for drifting somewhat off the topic of your post, Richard!]

    Best wishes,


  3. Philip,

    I am not entirely convinced by your comments above. I do not think that Harry Kroto’s article tells the whole story. In particular, I think (hope) that it is based on pre-top up fees data. Having students pay for education may well in the long run make them think carefully about what they are spending it on. Certainly at Sheffield student numbers have done rather well since fees became reality.

    The reason I am not convinced by what you say is that your quote contradicts Kroto. HK dwells on the wealth that a science degree brings, and the enquiring mind is a means to that end. In the quote above the enquiring mind is a means in itself.

    I think that Martin is right and we are indeed starting to see a backlash. In fact calls to scrap testing for under 16s are part of that backlash. OK, round #1 was defeated by the education secretary, but the backlash is with us. As your grant portfolio shows, Philip, money is flowing into research for those with talent. Salaries are better than in, say, France and are quite competitive for academics. All of this is creating the conditions necessary to make science more attractive for future generations. There is more to it than universities, but I do think things are looking up.

    The goal of creating a rich nation belongs to the government, and the goal of scholarship and feeding enquiring minds is down to the universities and schools. The second goal can feed the first but it is not really the other way round. The government has to have an education policy. Sometimes it gets it right, and sometimes it gets it wrong. When it gets it wrong, a backlash will eventually generate a case articulate enough to force retreat.

    Oh, yes, we are off topic… Congratulations Richard on the post. I don’t think your coyness about the name of the Strategic Advisor is fooling anyone!

    Best wishes


  4. Congratulations! I read this post at the beginning of the day and didn’t follow the link, so I thought you were talking about someone else, but then in the course of an unrelated search activity I saw the front page of EPSRC and was not particularly surprised to see that this new appointee is in fact you. Very subtle!

  5. Mark,

    First, before I continue to hijack Richard’s original post (!), could I also offer my congratulations to him on his appointment to the position of Strategic Advisor. (Richard and I did, however, meet recently at a conference in Nottingham and I had the opportunity to congratulate him in person).

    I seem to have interpreted Kroto’s article somewhat differently to you. He does indeed discuss, as you say, “the wealth that a science degree brings” but that discussion is complemented by (perhaps I should say juxtaposed with) comments such as the following:

    We live in a world economically, socially and culturally dependent on science not only functioning well, but being wisely applied. Note the inclusion of “socially” and “culturally”.

    “The scientific method is based on what I prefer to call the inquiring mindset. It includes all areas of human thoughtful activity that categorically eschew “belief”, the enemy of rationality.

    The latter comment is followed by a discussion of the societal and cultural implications of education being led by faith-based organisations. (Incidentally, I very much agree with what he says on this point). Although he mentions a “takeover by the next generation of young Chinese and Indians”, it’s clear – at least to me! – that Kroto is considering the impact on levels other than purely economical. For example, he notes that the prime minister and the Department for Education and Skills are “intent on propagating culturally divisive dogma that is antagonistic to the secular, enlightened philosophy that created the modern world” (emphasis mine). Unless one imagines that culture is solely determined by the national GDP, I would argue that Kroto is considering the impact of science education in terms rather more broad than pure economics.

    You are, of course, correct to note that Oliver James goes somewhat further in his quote. It was somewhat misleading of me to follow comments on Kroto’s article with the quote from James. Nevertheless, how does one interpret the following statement from Kroto?:

    “Journalists never ask scientists anything other than what the applications are of scientific breakthroughs. Interestingly, I doubt they ever ask a musician, writer or actor the same question. I wonder why.”

    From one perspective this could be seen as being very much in the spirit of James’ quote above. Science is so much more than just the technological developments it underpins (and I reiterate that I feel that this is a concept unfortunately not far short of heresy in the context of the Treasury’s view of research funding). That pure, application-less science can make contributions to society and the human condition comparable to those of great music, literature, and the arts is something that we must strive to put across to students at all levels.

    (I’ll include a shameless advert for Nottingham at this point, and note that we’re holding the formal opening of our Nanotechnology and Nanoscience Centre on Monday. Kroto is opening the Centre and I hope that I will get a chance to speak with him about his article in the Guardian.)

    During the Software Control of Matter sandpit, David Bott and I had a number of discussions on this theme. (Our initial exchange is on the sandpit blog ). I very much enjoyed the discussions with David and he made me see the interplay between academic and industrial research in a rather new light. However, David is of the opinion that “application-less” science is effectively either worthless or an extravagance we can ill-afford. This is a view that I simply can’t take on board! What is perhaps most dispiriting is the increasingly prevalent view (even amongst academic researchers) that it is somehow rather naive to expect blue skies research of this type to be funded as this is not “useful” for the taxpayer.

    You state that “The goal of creating a rich nation belongs to the government, and the goal of scholarship and feeding enquiring minds is down to the universities and schools”. I feel that this is much too simplistic a division. A government should be driven by principled ideology and not by a quest to create a “rich nation”. Indeed, just how do we define what is meant by a “rich nation”? In terms of the gap between the lowest and highest paid, the New Labour government has a pretty poor record even worse than that of the Thatcher era!!. From the recent budget, it’s clear that Brown is not, ahem, “overly concerned” with this gap.

    “When it gets it wrong, a backlash will eventually generate a case articulate enough to force retreat.” Hmmmm….

    Despite all its claims with regard to openness, transparency, and listening to the voters (remember “The Big Conversation”?) this government has an appalling record on this count. The current debacle over BAE systems – where, of course, it was “commercial interests” that overrode any other consideration – is just one example of many where ministers have been remarkably economical with the truth. I don’t believe that forcing retreat from this Government on any issue is going to be particularly easy.

    I realise that many of my comments above probably sound hoplessly naive and idealistic but, as a final comment in an overly long post, consider the following statement from the foreword of the 1997 Dearing report. John Masefield, a Poet Laureate, is quoted on the role of universities in society: “where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways”. Dearing baldly states “It must continue to be so”.

    Apologies again for such a long post.

    Best wishes,


  6. Hello Phillip and All.

    First of all, apologies to Richard for instigating the hijacking of his Blog, it was not my intent. What is interesting, however, and a point not lost on me or the Crew is that the venue did create a discussion which I suggest shows a positive embracing of the medium.

    Phillip – Every indication I am getting is that the revolt is coming, not only in the British school system, but many other places as well. There is a backlash developing against the ‘Dumbing Down’ of the system, of embracing the joy of learning. I have noticed this not only within my own community, but other places as well. The sharing of knowledge, and thus the possibility of learning new things is growing and this can only be a good thing for society in general. The process which growing sometime in spite of the status quo will, it is hoped, be embraced by or if not embraced, overwhelmed by the prospect of this new age.

    Richard – Belated, but well deserved congratulations on your posting. I hope the dynamism you have brought to every thing you have done thus far, rubs off on the EPSRC.

    All The Best

  7. Philip,

    I did enjoy your post. You should not have criticised your post for being naive and idealistic. The same criticisms could equally have been levelled at mine; in fact I bet that’s what you thought! I think what is clear from your view compared to mine is that I approach this debate from a market-oriented view.

    I am going to resist adding to this debate, not because it is hijacking the post – I think it is a worthwhile discussion – but I don’t want to retread points I have already made, albeit naively and idealistically.



  8. Hi, Mark.

    I’ll curtail my usual verbosity – up to a point (!) – and agree that it’s best to leave it here for the time being. We’re certainly diametrically opposed in our views in that I have no time at all for the Blair-ite (that is to say, Thatcher-ite) market-driven approach to education. I have been pondering whether it’d be interesting to organise a public debate/discussion on this topic along the lines of the nanotechnology debate held in Nottingham a couple of years ago. We’ll see…

    Richard was a member of the panel for the Nottingham nanotechnology debate so, via a rather circuitous route, we’ve eventually managed to at least broadly connect to the theme of the original post!

    Best wishes,


    P.S. Apologies for the many typos in my previous post.

  9. Hi Philip,

    I do think it is an interesting debate, although I for one would not like to participate in it. The problem with education is that it is so politicized, and the beneficiaries (or otherwise) of the decisions made are not the consumers. The best arguments I have heard in the education debate are those in favour of vouchers, but I am still uneasy. If you have lousy parents you get a lousy education and there is nothing government policy can do about that.

    The EPSRC’s Strategic Advisor to Nanotechnology was passing through Sheffield today before visiting you and reminded me that Kroto was opening the Kroto Centre in Sheffield tomorrow. I commented about Harry Kroto at the breakfast table “I declare this jar of coffee open…” He certainly gets about.

    Bye for now


  10. This thread has stunned the many people I have pointed to it.

    Phillip – Many thanks for the insight you have brought to the subject, it has a lot of people thinking.

    Mark – Thank you for the Harry Kroto reference. It has created a flurry of havoc among the crew and the resources at Vega are great. I suggest the revolt is at hand in spite of itself and this can only be a good thing.

    Richard – Thank you for allowing this discussion to unfold. It has brought a lot of good information to the surface and, again. Congratulations. I hope to connect with you ‘3D’ in the Fall.

  11. Mark, Martin,

    Further to the discussion above, today’s Times Higher Education Supplement leads with a depressing article entitled “Goodbye Blue Skies”. The first few lines are as follows:

    “Concerns that academics may not win research grants unless they can demonstrate the future commercial benefits of their work have intensified. Ian Pearson, the Science Minister, told the Times Higher this week that he expected the seven research councils to continue the drive to improve the “economic impact” od the research projects that they fund.”

    Towards the end of this wholly dispiriting article, comes the suggestion that Ian Diamond, chairman of Research Councils UK, initially “told the THES that researchers would face a “double hurdle” – having both to show high-quality proposals and to impress research “end users” in the review process”. [Emphasis mine]. According to the THES he then retracted the reference to a double hurdle. Why do I get the strong feeling, however, that this so-called “double hurdle” is precisely what the government and many in RCUK would like to introduce?

    As a member of the EPSRC peer review college, I will refuse to judge proposals for blue skies/fundamental research in terms of their economic impact. I note that the current EPSRC responsive mode referee’s form, under “Potential Contribution to Knowledge Transfer” begins with “Where appropriate, …”. I sincerely hope that this proviso remains. Moreover, I would be deeply concerned with the possibility of potential economic impact being used as a metric to prioritise one grant over another during EPSRC panel meetings.

    Some may accuse me, and indeed the THES, of “scaremongering” but it’s worth noting that the response of many universities to RCUK’s recent consulation document on the assessment of economic impact mirrored that of the University of Nottingham: “[The proposals] fly in the face of the purpose of research within universities”. RCUK of course completely ignored this feedback in order to ensure that the government’s moronic “knowledge transfer agenda” was driven forward.

    On the plus side, the THES Leader column is entitled “Pursuit of truth is paramount…” and contains the following gem: “Universities are not only about being the “bedrock of our economic future”, as Mr. Brown said. They are about the simple pursuit of truth, the quest for knowledge for its own sake.” [Again, emphasis mine].

    Before I’m accused of continuing to “hijack” what is ostensibly a nanotechnology blog, it’s worth noting that a very recent call for EPSRC fellowship applications (for both early stage and more senior researchers) in the general area of nanotechnology asks solely for proposals which can demonstrate the “pull through” of “research outcomes” into applications. It’d be nice to think that a similar initiative on fundamental (blue skies) nanoscience was on the horizon, but I’ll not hold my breath. (I’d be delighted to be proven wrong, however, Richard!!).

    As a final point, I find it remarkable that in a move which is likely anathema to RCUK, the European Research Council, with a total budget of €7.5 billion over 7 years, has stated its commitment to fund science which is not linked to commercial objectives. It is perhaps too much to hope that the European Commission’s recognition of the value of “frontier research” might drive a more widespread realisation in RCUK that there is a societal value in funding basic science beyond its potential technological exploitation. (I am of course aware, however, that the European Commission is very much signed up to the “economic impact agenda” in many other areas of current and previous Framework Programmes).

    Apologies for revisiting this discussion but I think that it’s arguably the most important current debate in academia.

    Best wishes,


  12. Philip, no need for apologies. It’s an extremely important issue, and your broad analysis of the trends in thinking in government and the research councils is entirely correct. As you know, I don’t entirely agree with your position on “fundamental” vs “applied” research; I think it is quite legitimate to worry that there’s too much emphasis now on research producing economic impact in the short term, and that we should try and protect long-term research with less immediate impact, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for there to be an expectation that in the future that research will have economic or social impacts, even if we don’t know right now what those impacts might be. This is a big discussion and maybe I ought to write a post specifically as a home for it.

  13. Welcome back, Richard – I hope that you had a relaxing holiday. I’m also off to the seaside with my family tomorrow for a week.

    I fully support your suggestion of writing a dedicated post for the discussion above. It would be very helpful if the question of economic impact were discussed/debated at length. One could possibly argue that, as a nanotechnology blog, Soft Machines may not be the most appropriate “venue” for that debate. However, I’m of the opinion that the the question of applied vs basic research funding is particularly pertinent to nanoscience.

    Best wishes,


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