The response to the UK publishing another nanotechnology strategy has been almost universally critical (by "another" I refer to this one which seems to have escaped detection by the authors of this most recent version). While it does have bits that even its critics seem to appreciate, the overall reaction to its release can be characterized as disappointment.
The most common complaint appears to be that it put such extreme emphasis on risk issues related to environment, health and safety (EHS) that it virtually excluded the activity of promoting innovation. This position was so radical it even made one of the world’s most vocal proponents of addressing the EHS concerns surrounding nanotechnology wince.
It seems at once to abandon funding of fundamental nanoscience to focus instead on funding the commercializing of nanotechnology while contending that the field of nanotechnology is at a very early stage. It quotes market numbers for nano-enabled products that are such a drastic departure from most estimates that it leaves one questioning why tens of billions of dollars are being poured in by governments around the world to fund research. It also rather off-handedly dismisses one of the few initiatives it has undertaken over the last few years to have garnered near-universal praise.
So, how did this all go so wrong? I thought I would take a look at the consulting company that provided their odd market numbers to see if this might shed any light on where the report might have gone astray. The numbers were apparently provided by an organization called Nanoposts.com. Although my perusal of the “About Us” page produced little information, I was able to find a name on the “Contact Us” page that seemed to sound familiar.
This was my first clue to the source of this UK strategy and the second one was the direct link to Nano Magazine, which as you may recall briefly was publishing a blog that contained only two entries one of which was written by Otilla Saxl, which gave me such a good laugh a few months back. By the way, you can no longer navigate to the blog from the Nano Magazine website.Both Nano Magazine and Nanoposts.com share one common attribute: they both organizationally belong to The Institute of Nanotechnology (IoN), which as you can see from the link is the umbrella organization for Nano Magazine and Nanoposts.com.
The IoN is also the organization behind an EU-funded project called ObservatoryNANO, which is supposed to provide European decision-makers in government, industry, and finance objective information for making their decisions and sometimes published unintentionally funny stuff on their website and then when it was revealed that the funny stuff was also plagiarized it would be quickly taken down. (It seems to be a developing pattern: write unintentionally funny and filched material until someone calls you on it and then make it all disappear.)I don’t know how the IoN serves as an umbrella organization for companies such as Nanoposts.com, which sells $6,000 reports, and still manages to be registered as a charity organization, but bravo. It is also a bit bewildering to try and figure out how it or one of its subordinate companies can manage to make such a hash of analyzing the impact of nanotechnology and continue to hold such influence on the UK’s nanotechnology policy.
But one thing I feel reasonably sure of is that as long it holds this sway on UK policy makers the government there will continue to produce products that get labeled “incompetent” by observers such as seems to be the opinion on this recent strategy document.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.