No half measures in nanotech funding

Nanotechnology seems to have been around for so long it is easy to forget it is still a young area of research.

In its short history, the emerging nanoscience and its potential applications have been exposed to the full glare of public attention. The results of that have included scare stories in the national press, endless references to the ‘width of a human hair’ and the ultimate accolade for any self-respecting new technology — murmurs of concern from Prince Charles.

Behind the hype, however, is a potentially enormous global market and exactly the type of fast-developing hi-tech industry in which the UK needs to carve a leading position.

So how are we doing? As Dr Kamal Hossain of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) explains in Viewpoint, the verdict seems to be ‘could do better’.

That is broadly the conclusion of a Council of Science and Technology (CST) report that examines the government’s progress and finds it lacking in key areas such as research into toxicity and environmental impacts.

Dr Hossain has a particular concern regarding the CST’s proposals for the future direction of nano research.

One of the areas highlighted by the report as a success story is the UK’s world-leading position in nanometrology and nanotechnology standards.

According to the CST, standards and measurement have developed to the point at which further public funding can be reined back, with state support directed to other areas identified as greater priorities and private commercial sources making up the deficit.

Metrology would, in other words, become something of a victim of its own success, at least when it comes to gaining access to public funding.

The NPL’s Dr Hossain fears this would be a big mistake. He makes a persuasive case that to fall behind on the ability to measure, monitor and benchmark nanomaterials and systems would leave the UK at a serious disadvantage, and put at risk the considerable progress already made.

As the number of potential nano-applications multiplies around the world, one of the most in-demand skills will be to understand exactly what is happening at the most fundamental level of this exciting area of research, which often involves pushing the boundaries of science.

If the UK has the expertise and the facilities to meet this demand it will have a place at the top table of the nanotechnology banquet.

There is a further important element to the equation. As already noted, the implications of nanotechnology have created a certain amount of disquiet.

The best way to reassure the wider public that nanomaterials are safe is to demonstrate that they have been fully understood. And what cannot be measured cannot be fully understood.

Andrew Lee, editor