This week we get two very different perspectives on the state of nanotechnology and its development.
On the one hand, we have the somewhat jaundiced view from the United Kingdom–based New Scientist, which confesses to a fair amount of skepticism about the mere idea of nanotechnology but wonders why the UK has seemingly dropped off the nanotech map.
On the other hand, we have the United States–based Industry Week, which promises that whatever regulatory problems we see now are merely growing pains in the manifest destiny of nanotech’s ultimate success.
The somewhat more pessimistic Old World view comes from Roger Highfield, the New Scientist editor who penned the publication’s blog piece. He references the travails of UK-based quantum manufacturer Nanoco as evidence of the lack of emphasis on nanotech’s development in the UK.
Highfield also bases much of his perspective on a nearly abandoned piece of research sponsored by the RCUK Nanoscience Programme entitled “Setting the Foundations for New Industries and Opportunities,” which can be found here. Of course, abandoning previous research so you can do it all over again is a popular tradition that seems to plague European Union projects and especially those in the UK.The report, which was put together by an international panel of academics, seems to have ignored the rule for most of these government reports: They ultimately must serve as a pat on the back while urging people to do even more great work.
It does, however, nail one of the key problems with nanotech’s development in the UK (and, one could argue, in the EU as well):
“...the system is top-heavy, with a labyrinth of advisory, consultative, and coordinating committees. These impede decision taking, rather than facilitating it, and create confusion both within the research community and at higher policy levels.”
I am sure that this dependence on consultations and repetitive reports all started innocently enough, but now it seems to have become a systemic problem that will really need to be addressed for there to be forward progress—not only in the UK, but in just about any country that has announced a nanotechnology initiative.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.