The UK government had the chance this month to take some bold decisions in two seemingly disparate fields: nanotechnology and energy.

The UK government had the chance this month to take some bold decisions in two seemingly disparate fields: nanotechnology and energy. 

But many scientists say that those opportunities have been squandered. Strong leadership and concrete policy proposals are needed in both fields, but instead we saw something rather more hesitant. 

The headlines that followed the UK energy review focused on the government’s acceptance that building more nuclear power stations was an important factor in sustaining our electricity supply. Most scientists agree that the threat of anthropogenic climate change means rapid action is needed to reduce our carbon dioxide output, and for many, nuclear energy is at least a sensible stop-gap solution while renewable energy sources are developed. 

The review also had warm words for renewable energy sources, such as biofuels and solar power, which are slated to provide 20 per cent of the UK’s energy by 2020. 

But while the science behind these sources is maturing fast, the technology is still some way from being economically competitive with fossil fuels. An intensive research campaign is needed to bring these energy sources to market, and scientists are justifiably disappointed that the review contains no firm commitments to support R&D in these areas.

Capturing and storing the carbon dioxide from fossil fuels could help to mitigate our impact on the climate. The UK is already well placed to lead the world in this technology, and should press forward with its plans to develop pilot plants. Yet despite these efforts, climate scientists warn that the UK’s goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 still looks very difficult to achieve. The government promises that a white paper around the end of the year will outline energy policy for the next three or four decades - hopefully, more detailed plans will emerge then. 

Nanotechnology could play a key role in improving both energy efficiency and generation, and it too saw its own review launched this month, which will be overseen by the Council for Science and Technology (CST). Actually, this will be a review of a review, to assess whether the government has acted on recommendations delivered by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering in 2004. At that time, the scientists’ key message was that research into both the opportunities and the threats of this burgeoning field was urgently needed. Academics and industrialists alike want clear regulation in nanotechnology, not least so that they can secure public confidence in the field. 

But toxicology research that could help to shape new regulations has not seen the extra funding it requires, and commissioning another review that will probably reiterate the messages of two years ago smacks of an unseemly eagerness to kick the issue into the long grass.

The chemical sciences lie at the heart of both of these knotty problems, and chemists should seek out every opportunity to shape their development. Whether developing new materials for fuel cells, or contributing to the CST’s nano-review, chemists’ voices must be heard by policy-makers. Given the current pause for further thought, now is the perfect time to chip in. 

Mark Peplow, editor