UK loses its nanotechnology lead

Government's advisory board on science and technology claims the UK has failed to fund nanotechnology

The UK government has failed to allocate enough funding to nanotechnology, and the funding that has been allocated has not be fairly distributed, according to a report on the subject from the government's own advisory board.

Released this week, the report from the Council for Science and Technology (CST) claims that in the past five years there has been approximately £13m of government funding into nanotechnology, and that is not enough to keep pace with such a rapidly evolving and important area.

Commenting on the report's findings, Steffi Friedrichs of independent research body the Nanotechnology Industry Association (NIA) agreed that the UK had lost its lead. "Just a few years ago, this country led the world in the study of nanotechnology. It does not anymore," she said

Friedrichs claims that a key issue is that the UK spends too much trying to address concerns and misconceptions about nanotechnology, and not enough on core research.

"People know so little about nanotechnology," said Friedrichs. "Look at the iPod. People think that is nanotechnology and of course it isn't. It is just a word that people pick up on."

The NIA is an example of what the government achieved early on, according to Friedrichs. "This is the research institute entirely given over to nanotechnology that is entirely independent," Friedrichs told ZDNet UK. "The others are all trade associations."

The NIA was set up on the initial wave of enthusiasm for nanotechnology in the UK, which Friedrichs admits has faded — a fact reflected in the CST report.

The report also criticised the government for not allocating the limited budget for nanotechnology more evenly. Almost £10m of funding went on nanometrology — a wide-reaching term that refers to the measurement of items or events on a nanoscale — which left just £3m for toxicology and health and environmental impacts.

The CST welcomed the money spent on nanometrology, but said: "The level of support for toxicology and health and environmental impacts is insufficient".

The CST report argued that the government is in "responsive mode" when it comes to funding nanotech. "Basic toxicology work, although vital, may not be the most innovative or cutting-edge research and thus will rightly not be funded by the Research Councils," it argued. "To put it bluntly, the safe development of a new technology should not depend on whether an academic wins a highly competitive research grant."

"A comprehensive programme of strategic government spending is necessary to fulfil government's [original] commitments," the report stated.

Finnish handset maker Nokia recently announced that its Nokia Research Centre (NRC) will set up a "research facility" at the Cambridge University, where work will primarily focus on nanotechnology. The partnership could provide a boost for UK-based research and development, which took a hit last year when Intel shut down its Cambridge facilities in a cost-cutting drive.