Nanotech research funding halted by a thumbs-down from the public

Consultancy-led workshops steer EPSRC towards closing an avenue of study. Zoe Corbyn reports

August 7, 2008

How much influence the general public should have in setting the agenda for university research has long been a point of contention among academics.

Now, in what is thought to be the first case of its kind, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has declined to fund certain aspects of nanotechnology research - based to a large extent on public objections.

At stake is the EPSRC's £15 million funding of a "grand challenge" strategic research programme to explore the application of nanotechnology to medicine and healthcare.

The EPSRC hired a consultancy firm to organise a series of public workshops to help decide which areas of research would form the focus of the programme. The results, which are due to be published next week, saw a public thumbs-down for so-called theranostics - the insertion of small devices into patients to read chemical levels and provide automatic adjustments as required.

"Scientists were really excited by the idea (of theranostics), but there was real resistance from the public because they thought it was giving over too much control to a gadget," explained Richard Jones, a professor of physics at the University of Sheffield who advises the EPSRC on its nanotechnology strategy.

Nanotechnology for drug discovery was also greeted with a lukewarm public response because of its perceived benefit to drug companies.

The call for research proposals announced in June instead focused on devices to detect diseases in their early stages and to improve targeted drug delivery to hard-to-reach tissue. Both these areas were rated highest by the public.

Professor Jones denied that the decisions were based purely on the will of the public - academics, industry and doctors had also been consulted - but he said the public consultations had given the EPSRC "something to think about which was not obvious".

He said he did not know of any other examples "in the UK or elsewhere" of a public consultation tangibly determining funding.

He added that the EPSRC had become "much more aware of societal issues" and was developing a new approach through its societal issues panel headed by the TV science presenter and Labour peer Lord Winston.

"I don't think the EPSRC is going to (have a consultation) for every funding decision it makes," he said, adding that the process had been expensive and time consuming. "But there is a general move in the EPSRC to be more serious about taking on board what people think and so we will look for places where it is appropriate to do this," he said.

Jack Stilgoe, a senior researcher at the think-tank Demos, which specialises in issues of science, society and public engagement, said the EPSRC was setting a good example."It seems like a genuine attempt to open up public decision-making ... The test will be further down the line when we see how different the research projects actually look," he said.

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