Science minister David Willetts told MPs yesterday it is ‘most unlikely’ the UK’s 24 nanotechnology centres will still be in existence in 18 months time.
In the first public meeting of the House of Commons science and technology committee, Willetts said the UK has too many centres that are ‘sub-critical in size’ and resources are fractionalised by region.
‘We have been getting a strong message that especially when times are tight that people want fewer, stronger centres,’ he said.
Willetts added that it will be up to the government’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB) to look at the UK’s regional nanotechnology centres and ‘take some quite tough decisions’’ about where resources should be re-directed and concentrated.
The more centralised focus falls into line with the coalition government’s proposal for abolishing England’s nine regional development agencies (RDAs) for new local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) which would bring together local councils and businesses.
Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have been eager to scrap RDAs which were established by the Labour government soon after it came into power.
Willetts and others in the coalition government argue the work of the RDAs are often redundant and too expensive.
When questioned by a committee member on whether the abolition of the RDAs would have impact on regional science, Willetts said: ‘I don’t believe they should. Partly because we hope the local economic partnerships will be an effective device for supporting economic growth which includes new initiative industries in the regions and local communities.’
Willetts stressed the need to break the ‘historic weakness’ in the link between science and business and pointed to Fraunhofer technology innovation centres in Germany as a model for the UK to follow.
He also pleaded the need for more private funding for research and development work and suggested the department would look into potential tax incentives.
Martin Kemp, of the TSB-backed Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network (NanoKTN), declined to comment on any plans for culling regional centres in favour of more centralised facilities but would speak of the general importance of the support for innovation in the UK.
‘We have a significant science and expertise base in the UK,’ he said. ‘My opinion is nanotechnology is an industrial revolution and the UK is well placed to be at the forefront of that globally.’