LONDON A damming report from a UK parliamentary watchdog today (Friday 2nd April) accuses the government and to some extent industry of letting slip an early lead in nanotechnology.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee found the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) culpable of failing to build on early breakthroughs and concludes that the commercialization of nanotechnology research in the UK "presents a depressingly familiar picture of excellent research that is not being translated to the country's commercial benefit to the same extent as it is in other competitor countries."
The hard hitting report accuses the Government of ignoring the central recommendation of the expert group it appointed to produce a strategy for the commercialization of nanotechnology: the urgent establishment of at least two nanotechnology fabrication facilities. The Committee accuses the DTI of displaying "timidity and poor judgement" in not implementing this recommendation fully.
The parliamentarians were very critical of the fact that an early successful nanotechnology program that began in the mid 1980s was not exploited better and blames the scientific community and the DTI for "lacking the foresight and leadership to drive forward this advantage" that would have put the UK at the forefront of nanotechnology research and development.
In July 2003, the Government announced a package of £90 million (about $160 million) over six years to support a Micro and Nanotechnology (MNT) Manufacturing Initiative. It asked industry, Regional Development Agencies and Devolved Administrations to contribute a further £270 million to support applied research and the development of micro and nanotechnology facilities.
However, the committee called this a wholly inadequate and muddled response since the involvement of the regional development agencies meant that the support had to be shared between far too many projects to have any meaningful impact.
On the MNT, the committee was scathing, suggesting the money would have been much better spent on setting up one or two world class nano-fabrication facilities.
In an early response, the DTI said it had reviewed the strategy and planned to announce funding for two such centers very shortly.
The Chairman of the Committee, Dr Ian Gibson, said "The DTI funds little projects from cash left over from bailing out British Energy; what we need is one or two world class national nanofabrication facilities to put the UK on the map. And it's as well the DTI isn't a dating agency. When it comes to nanotechnology, industry and academia is a match made in heaven but the DTI can't get them beyond the first blind date."
The report notes that British scientists have developed applications in several important areas, including data storage and pharmaceuticals, but companies, large and small, have done little to commercialize these advances. It also notes that universities have not done enough to expand nanotechnology into science courses.
The committee recommends a strengthening of the leadership of the MNT Manufacturing Initiative and a co-ordinated skills strategy to provide industry with the necessary skills to take advantage of nanotechnology R&D.
It calls for significantly increased funding into technology, and for a longer time-frame. "The sums of money currently committed by Government and other agencies, spent in line with current strategy, will ensure that the UK continues to fall behind our major competitors."
Dr Gibson said "the Chancellor (of the Exchequer) should be following the American and Japanese examples and announcing a ten year national strategy for nanotechnology investment. Otherwise, the best people and the best ideas will drift to where the serious money and the serious facilities are."
The amount of resources the UK is putting into the technology pale into insignificance compared with the £2bn the US government has promised to invest over the next four years, and the much larger sums Japan has already spent and is planning to invest over the next decade.