Sainsbury denies 'chaotic' strategy

January 30, 2004

The government's strategy for nanotechnology is "chaotic" and driven by a desire to save money, MPs claimed this week.

At an evidence session with the Commons' science and technology committee on Wednesday, David Sainsbury, the science minister, and Keith O'Nions, the new director general of the research councils, admitted the government had abandoned its previous plan to set up two major national nanotechnology centres.

Committee members responded with concerns that the government might be spreading its money too thinly and adopting a "scattergun" approach to developing the field.

Robert Key, Conservative MP for Salisbury, told the minister: "There is only one thing that is absolutely clear about government policy on nanotechnology - that it is chaotic and it is being made up as it goes along."

The Department for Trade and Industry was originally basing its nanotechnology policy upon a strategy report written by Sir John Taylor, the former director general of the research councils, which was published in June 2002. This called for urgent government action, including the setting up of two national centres.

But Lord Sainsbury admitted that when this report was drafted, the government understood "very much less about what was going on" in nanotechnology.

He said that the strategy no longer "looked right" and the government had opted to use existing facilities across the country rather than building major new centres.

He agreed that setting up the centres would have required a lot of additional investment, but insisted that the decision was not motivated by money.

Lord Sainsbury said: "Firstly, we had a wider view of the range of technologies involved. And secondly we saw more opportunities to use current facilities - that made much more sense."

But Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North and the chair of the committee, said: "I think there is a financial element. You have not convinced me."

The committee also attacked the role of the regional development agencies in developing nanotechnology. Dr Gibson said: "We're concerned about the RDAs not cutting the mustard."

Lord Sainsbury insisted he was "encouraged" by the RDA's interest in nanotechnology.

* The scientific community needs to take the potential risks associated with nanotechnology seriously if the nascent field is to avoid disaster, according to a senior academic, writes Steve Farrar .

John Carroll, emeritus professor of engineering at Cambridge University, outlined three areas of concern in a submission to the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering.

These doubts focused on free-ranging nanoscale objects, particles that are constructed on an atomic scale.

Professor Carroll was concerned that the mixing of nanoparticles could prompt unforeseen reactions, as some small particles are known to act as carcinogens in the body and nanoparticles may be able to diffuse through the skin.

Professor Carroll said that such matters needed to be investigated.

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