The mouse that roared

Moving house is a stressful experience – that’s why most of us take a few days off work to empty the boxes, do a spot of painting and generally reassemble our lives.

Spare a thought then for Gordon Brown, who although – we assume – will have someone to carry out these onerous domestic chores for him will be denied the luxury of settling quietly into his new surroundings. Instead, in between plugging in his television and cursing the previous occupant for not hoovering around properly, Mr Brown must immediately settle down to the unenviable task of running a country and organising a new government.

Such occasions – with a new person at the helm, and a bunch of employees desperate to ingratiate themselves with the new boss – have always provided an opportune moment for anyone with an agenda to pursue, an axe to grind or a point to make to loudly state their case. And this is no exception.

Perhaps some of loudest calls for government assistance are emanating from the UK’s science and technology sector, where researchers involved in everything from the medical sciences to the energy industry are pointedly restating their demands for greater government backing.

In one of the most timely of these pleas, the newly launched UK Nanotechnology Task Force, this week called on the government to address its perceived failure to develop a coherent strategy for funding nanotechnology research.

The UK has a strong research base in nanotechnology. Not long ago it led the world, and it is still in a reasonably good position to secure a big share of a global market that some estimate could be worth £1 trillion by 2013. But we are being left behind by the US and Japan. According to a report published in March by the government’s own advisory board, the Council for Science and Technology, a major reason for this is that in the past five years there has been approximately £13m of government funding into nanotechnology: nowhere near enough to keep pace with such a rapidly evolving area. The report also claimed that the UK spends too much trying to address concerns and misconceptions about nanotechnology and not enough on core research.

The newly formed task force hopes to address these problems by encouraging collaboration between industry, government and academia, and identifying specific areas of the science and technology in which the UK can be a world leader. Funding of research, the Task Force argues, should then be channelled to harness the UK’s innovation and creativity of scientists in order to help the country gain a competitive advantage.

It’s certainly a familiar refrain: yet again here is an area of technology in which the UK has the potential to lead the world – and yet again the UK’s leading experts are tearing their hair out in exasperation at the absence of a coordinated approach that could turn the innovative work of UK engineers and scientists into real benefits.

Jon Excell, Features Editor