The nanotechnology industry has called on the government to take the lead in co-ordinating all nanotechnology activities across the UK.
While the innovation and exploitation of nanotechnologies should be conducted by organisations, their efforts should be aligned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), according to the government-funded Nanotechnology KTN (Knowledge Transfer Network).
"The success of nanotechnology should be industry-led, and we are proposing that BIS takes responsibility for co-ordinating nanotech in other government departments, academia and industry," Barry Park, Nanotechnology KTN manager for manufacturing and processing, said at an event in London on Thursday.
At present, there is a lack of direction from the government, no coherent public sector focus, and low public sector support for nanotechnology, the Nanotechnology KTN said in a report launched at the event.
The report, entitled Nanotechnology: A UK Industry View, also noted that the sector is highly fragmented, with few large companies and many SMEs. In addition, there is supply chain complexity, and it is difficult to transfer intellectual property from academia to industry.
Park told the audience at the event that the government should give health and safety guidance for products being released into the marketplace. "The government should put in place a framework through which product risk assessments should be carried out," he said.
While long-term studies into the toxicological effects of nanotechnology have been carried out, research groups should be brought together to build a coherent picture of the health effects, Park told ZDNet UK. "We can get critical mass by bringing together people with similar research interests," he said.
In addition, while larger companies may have research departments, smaller companies may not be able to perform adequate health and safety assessments, he noted. "A lot of companies are small, and may not have in-house expertise," said Park. "Let's be in a position from a government perspective to test safely."
However, Nick Stuart, head of science and innovation at government body UK Trade and Investment, told the event's audience that while it will pay to be cautious, too much regulation could stifle innovation.
"Unless we have a clear idea whether particles are really safe, there is an issue there," Stuart said. "But we could get to a point where SMEs can't afford to do research, due to health and safety."
Government labs are open to groups or SMEs that want to test products, said Kenton Thompson, nanotech assistant director at BIS. "We've got facilities that people can use and the mechanisms to transfer that knowledge to the public," he said.
Thompson also said that the government is already playing a part in nanotech efforts, in co-ordination and elsewhere. "A specific government group has been set up to look at health and safety," said Thompson. "We've been fully aware of people's concerns from the beginning."
Beyond that, there is a Health and Safety Executive project looking at nanotech, while the Institute of Occupational Medicine is investigating carbon nanotubes, which exhibit properties similar to asbestos, he added.
"The government is not going to let people be exposed," he said. "Imagine the backlash if [certain nanotechnologies are found to be] not safe. Imagine the litigation."