UK Nanotech in Turmoil

They say if you want to get the real story on just about anything, follow the money—or possibly, as in the case of the United Kingdom’s nanotechnology strategy, the lack thereof.

It started innocently enough, trying to figure out how much money governments around the world were spending on R&D for nanotech.

As it turns out, the UK, although one of the first countries to have a targeted nanotech program, sort of moved away from chasing other countries’ rising funding levels, leaving one noted UK nanotechnology researcher and occasional blogger wondering: Why has the UK given up on nanotechnology?

Richard Jones’ insights into the UK’s particular predicament are unique, and an important read for anyone interested in seeing how the emerging technology strategies of nations can slowly drift off course until they end up somewhere completely different from their intended destination.

The story is complicated, with different bureaucratic boards leading the initiative and then being dissolved, but at the core of it the problem is one of simple economics. Nanotechnology is an enabling technology, and while the UK has a thriving pharmaceutical industry, its chemical industry is moribund, and it never really had much of an electronics industry. This leaves nanotechnology without much to enable.

From a certain perspective, you would have to agree with those officials who oversaw the slow bleeding of funds from nanotechnology research in the country. What is the point, after all?

Well, one could reasonably argue, as some have in the comments section of Jones’ piece, that nanotech may have been an opportunity to jump-start the manufacturing industry in the UK. Yes, maybe, but when the money guys are making money hand over fist from derivatives and other convoluted financial instruments, it’s hard to convince them of the importance of creating a manufacturing base.

It is all a cautionary tale indeed. But of particular interest to me was that no sooner had Richard Jones hearkened back to the foundational nanotechnology strategy document for the UK published in 2002, and known as the Taylor report, than I read that a new report had been published that “outlines recommendations for future success of UK nanotechnology.” Ironic? You bet.

You know, they might have spared themselves the latest effort if they had simply read and followed the recommendations of the Taylor report written nealy10 years ago. Of course, in the absence of a manufacturing base it would appear the “nanotechnology industry” in the UK consists of writing up strategy reports and then ensuring that no one bothers to read them so they can be written over and over again

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

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Dexter Johnson
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