Research intelligence - Tiny steps to new world, but UK is stumbling

Nobel laureate excoriates the 'butchers' blocking progress in nanoscience. Paul Jump reports

February 24, 2011

"Blind butchers" in vice-chancellors' offices are undermining nanoscience's potential to deliver "paradigm shifts" in physics, biology and engineering, according to Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto.

Sir Harry, who was the co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and is currently a professor at Florida State University, made the remarks in response to a list of the 100 most influential materials scientists of the past decade, measured by the average citation count of their papers. The analysis (see related file, right) was produced for Times Higher Education by Thomson Reuters.

A survey of the listed scientists' websites reveals that 78 cite nanoscience and nanotechnology as either a main or partial research interest.

Sixty of the 100 top chemists over the past decade also work at least partially in the nano field, according to an analysis published earlier this month by THE.

Sir Harry said he was not surprised by the findings because nanoscience, which he defined as the "molecule-by-molecule assembly of more and more complex systems with advanced functions at nanoscale dimensions", was "simply 21st-century advanced chemistry".

But he said its potential to drive epochal advances in engineering, physics and biology was being hampered by the traditional academic boundaries dividing the subjects.

He said cutting-edge areas such as nanobiology and nanophysics were "more chemistry than anything else", but were not recognised as such. Consequently, work in the fields was often "limited in quality" due to a lack of chemical know-how in other science departments.

"This is one major reason for the perspective of vice-chancellors who decide they can chop chemistry," he said. "I call it death by a thousand cuts, inflicted by blind butchers who cannot see that we need more expert chemists than ever before."

He added that such "blindness" was undermining the UK's ability to contribute to advances in nanoscale engineering, which would get "nowhere rapidly" without "detailed understanding of molecular behaviour and construction". But he acknowledged that things were "not much better" in the US.

Jenny Nelson is one of four scientists from the cross-disciplinary Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London to feature on the materials science list.

She said that although she was officially a professor of physics, she regarded herself as a materials scientist. But she added that she had "never knowingly said" that she had an interest in nanotechnology.

Her colleague Iain McCulloch also doubted whether many of the 37 researchers on the list he regarded as working in organic electronics would describe their research as nanotechnology.

He said the field's strong showing, particularly among those working in the solar-energy sector, was probably a reflection of the "excitement" surrounding the subject.

Neil Champness, professor of chemical nanoscience at the University of Nottingham, is number 94 in the list of top chemists. He suspected that one reason for nanoscience's high citation impact was the specific funding that many nations are allocating to it, notably China.

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