The UK needs to develop a convincing strategy for nanotechnology research, argues Richard Jones

The UK needs to develop a convincing strategy for nanotechnology research, argues Richard Jones

There are reasons to believe that the UK is not performing in nanotechnology as well as it should be. Not only does the UK seem to be falling behind natural rivals like France and Germany, but there are also indications that it is being overtaken by newer players such as South Korea and China.  

Over the last couple of years the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been carrying out a review of its strategy in nanotechnology, and in December 2006 a new strategy was approved by council.1 

The report details a number of measures that demonstrate the UK’s relative weakness, including bibliometric and patent studies. More telling are the various international reviews, such as the International Review of Chemistry in 2002, chaired by the distinguished US nanoscientist George Whitesides. It stated that:  

’Nanoscience and technology in the UK clearly lags. Chemistry is, in fact, only a part of the area, although probably the most important part of the ’bottom-up’ approach. It is, however, an area that requires seamless integration of electrical engineering, applied physics, chemistry, and mechanical engineering, and access to specialised facilities: it thus represents the type of multicentre, multidiscipline research at which the UK is constitutively weak.’ 

It’s clear that chemistry really is at the heart of nanotechnology; but nanotechnology is not simply another name for chemistry. Progress depends on the integration of chemistry, physics, biology, and engineering. 

Where nanotechnology has made the headlines in the UK has been in the nascent controversy that has developed around the potential toxic effects of nanoparticles. It’s clear that these concerns are by no means groundless, and the government’s response has received weighty criticism from the Council for Science and Technology, the UK government’s top independent advisory body on science and technology policy. 

However, nanoparticles represent only a very small fraction of the potential future applications of nanotechnology, and it’s unfortunate that the debate has become focused on this one issue, important though it is to get it right. One thing the government can take some credit for is in developing a number of public engagement activities around nanotechnology, in response to the recommendation in the 2004 Royal Society report,2 and recently reviewed by the Nanotechnology Engagement Group.3  

So what does the public think of nanotechnology? For those who assume that the public is instinctively opposed to new technology, the results are heartening. Of course, people are worried about safety and toxicity issues, and expect due diligence in researching these risks; there’s also a general concern about who controls and regulates new technologies. But on the other hand, there is excitement about the potential social and economic benefits from nanotechnology, particularly in areas such as sustainable energy and medicine. 

This stresses to us that we need to make it clear to the public (and ourselves) why we are pursuing particular research directions. There’s still plenty of room for research whose ultimate applications aren’t obvious, and the need for this is recognised by the public. But there’s an opportunity, where our research is aligned towards goals that have strong support from the public, to make our aims much clearer. 

The UK does not have a single nanotechnology programme, with ring-fenced funding, of the kind represented by the US National Nanotechnology Initiative, and this will not change in the new EPSRC strategy. Most funding for nanotechnology, as before, will come from responsive mode applications to existing programmes. However, the strategy does call for large scale, integrated, multidisciplinary projects directed towards an area of societal need - dubbed ’Grand Challenges’. The first of these Grand Challenges will be launched in the autumn, with the aim of using nanotechnology to enable cheap, efficient and scalable ways to harvest solar energy. 

Nanotechnology in the UK is perhaps not in as good a position as it should be, but these Grand Challenges are a new opportunity to change this. What is needed is unity and sense of purpose across the UK nanotechnology community. We need to do exciting science which meets broadly agreed societal needs and delivers economic benefits. 

Richard Jones is EPSRC Professorial Fellow and Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology, University of Sheffield, UK