Brussels, 05 Apr 2004
A report commissioned by the UK Government has claimed that a lack of foresight by both policy makers and the scientific community has led to the UK losing its leading position in the field of nanotechnology.
The UK launched a nanotechnology research programme in the mid-1980s when few other countries had recognised the potential of this new technology. But activity eased when enthusiasm dwindled.
'The commercialisation of nanotechnology research in the UK in many ways presents a depressingly familiar picture of excellent research that is not being translated to the country's commercial benefit to the same extent as it is in other competitor countries,' states the report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. 'The story is all the more dispiriting because the UK was recognised to be ahead of the game when a nanotechnology research programme was started in the mid 1980s.'
The committee blames the lapse on a lack of foresight and leadership within the UK Government's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the scientific community. 'The benefits of nanotechnology were too uncertain and far off for industry to get involved without Government stimulation of interest and help with the provision of expensive facilities.'
This loss of leadership on the international nanotechnology stage has translated into a decline in participation in the nanotechnology sections of the EU's framework programmes for research.
The UK secured 15 per cent of the EU funding available for nanotechnology projects under the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), and one third of participants came from industry. Statistics on the response to the first call for proposals for FP6's 'nanotechnology, materials and production technologies' thematic priority show that while the UK represented 11 per cent of participants in the proposals submitted (second only to Germany), UK industrial participation accounted for only 5.5 per cent of the total available funding.
The UK's Institute of Physics responded to these figures by comparing the lack of industrial participation in FP6 with the active involvement by academia in the UK and industry in France, Germany and Italy. As a result, the institute claimed that 'UK science is being exploited and developed elsewhere in Europe.'
UK academia does not, however, escape criticism in the report. At present, only ten UK universities offer courses with nanotechnology highlighted as a specific element in the title. Four of these are at undergraduate level, but, the report states, 'It is our view that undergraduate courses in nanotechnology are more of a desperate scheme to attract people into science courses than an attempt to provide the right skills for subsequent employment.
Universities should, instead, be nurturing these skills at postgraduate level in an interdisciplinary environment, affirms the Science and Technology Committee. At undergraduate level, nanotechnology should increasingly form a component of standard physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and engineering courses.
The report also calls on the government to implement a more focused strategy for the commercialisation of nanotechnology. Current funding goes primarily to existing microtechnology research and facilities that are dispersed around the UK. The strategy is aimed at assisting regional development, and much of the funding is provided by regional development agencies. The report refers to the set-up as 'a muddled strategy that seeks to reconcile the conflicting long term interests of the DTI's science and innovation policy with the development of regional policy.' Attempting to address both priorities simultaneously has served to 'undermine' the UK's position in terms of commercialisation, according to the report.
The report was compiled following oral evidence sessions with representatives from the government, the research councils, regional development agencies, small and large companies, academia and scientific societies. To consult the report in full, please visit: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa /cm/cmsctech.htm