A recent report said that the UK risks falling behind in nanotechnology. But there are some areas of nano where the UK is clearly a pioneer and a world leader.
The report from the Council for Science and Technology — Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies: A Review of Government’s Progress on its Policy Commitments — said government hadn’t made the progress it promised on research into the risks of nanotechnology. It pointed particularly to an absence of research into its toxicity, health and environmental impacts.
It did, however, note good progress in nanotechnology standards and metrology. This is a field in which we enjoy global leadership, and one that underpins all other nano research. The UK’s lead here is not the result of good luck, it comes from a determined funding effort and recognition that measurement and characterisation have a vital underpinning role in nanotech.
It is concerning then, that the report also suggests government funding has developed nanometrology to the point where there is now sufficient demand from industry to improve our capabilities with only minimal future state support. The report acknowledges that past spending was necessary and highly effective but suggests future government programmes should give priority to toxicology, health and environmental impacts rather than metrology.
This misses the point. These impacts can only be addressed if they can be accurately measured. As in any other branch of physics or engineering, measurement has to stay ahead of the research.
Measurement and characterisation are considered priorities for toxicology and ecotoxicology studies — by toxicologists themselves. The very novelty of the nanomaterials being produced means that some require new measurement techniques, protocols or reference materials for existing instruments. Without them, it is accepted that new research results would be difficult or even impossible to compare, and their value greatly reduced.
This is not a new phenomenon — real progress was made with the toxicology of asbestos fibres only when measured and characterised reference materials were produced and made available by those in the measurement community.
More importantly, the UK’s investment in nanometrology is already producing important research relevant to understanding the health, toxicology and environmental impact of nanomaterials. Reducing public investment at this stage would undermine the impact of those achievements and remove the ability to build upon existing results and progress in these areas.
Public funding has already supported the development of highly sensitive instruments to address the absence of reliable, affordable and standardised tools for measuring the size and shape of nanoparticles, and to characterise their composition and surface behaviour. This has helped us understand more about contaminants in the air, which contains more than 10,000 nanoparticles per cubic centimetre from ‘natural’ sources such as sea salt, and incidental manufactured sources including diesel engines.
The National Physical Laboratory’s work with Defra is producing reliable measurements of these particles. This means their formation and evolution in the atmosphere can be studied and their health effects properly evaluated. Such work is internationally agreed to be in its early stages. The true environmental effects of nanomaterials cannot be gauged adequately without further work.
The same public funding has also been responsible for the establishment of the London Bio Nano Centre (BNC), located at NPL, in partnership with Imperial College London and University College London. BNC studies the interface between biology and nanotechnology — an important area of research with implications for the impact of nanotech on healthcare, medical devices and treatments. The centre offers specialist nanomeasurement equipment and expertise to researchers and small firms, with a focus on early-stage product development and characterisation of nanoscale materials.
NPL agrees that a better understanding of the health, toxicological and environmental impact of nanomaterials is essential to developing a thriving UK nanotechnology industry, allowing us to take a leading position in this market. But determining this impact relies on our ability to understand and measure the most fundamental components of nanomaterials.
We are at a stage where withdrawing public financial support from the search for better nanometrology could undermine some of the results already achieved. There is a huge demand for improvements in nanometrology. The public wants to know that nanotech is safe. Industry wants new ways to underpin the search for new nanoscale products that can help give the UK a competitive lead in this market.
It is NPL’s view that the reduction in public funding for research in these areas, proposed by the CST report, must be considered in the light of these requirements.
Dr Kamal Hossain is director of Science and Innovation at the National Physical Laboratory
The UK leads the world in the field of nanometrology, which is the key to all nano research. So now is not the time to withdraw public funding, says Kamal Hossain.