No. 31 B Session 2003-2004, 2 April 2004

Too little too late? Government Investment in Nanotechnology

The Science and Technology Committee published its Fifth Report of Session 2003B04, Too little too late? Government Investment in Nanotechnology (HC 56-I), this morning.

The Committee concludes that the commercialisation of nanotechnology research in the UK in many ways “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 Committee reports that an early successful nanotechnology programme that began in the mid 1980s was not built upon and blames the scientific community and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for “lacking the foresight and leadership to drive forward this advantage” in order to put the UK at the forefront of nanotechnology research and development.

The Committee accuses the Government of ignoring the central recommendation of the expert group it appointed to produce a strategy for the commercialisation 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.

Instead, in July 2003, the Government announced a package of £90 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. The Committee calls this “a muddled strategy that seeks to reconcile the conflicting long term interests of the DTI’s science and innovation policy with the development of regional policy.” The Report also criticises the change in focus from the long term potential of nanotechnology to the more immediate commercial benefits of microtechnology: “the emphasis is on short term rewards at the expense of long term strength.” 

The Committee calls for a more directed approach to nanotechnology support, building upon existing UK research strengths. It 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. The Report compares levels of funding in the UK with those elsewhere and concludes that “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.” It calls for a clear commitment in the Chancellor’s forthcoming investment framework for science and innovation to funding nanotechnology research and development “significantly in excess of current spending plans” at least over the next ten years.

The Chairman of the Committee, Dr Ian Gibson, said “Nanotechnology is a classic example of world class British science not being backed by Government or exploited by industry. 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.”

Commenting on the Government’s recently announced science and innovation investment framework, Dr Gibson said, “For the first time in years we have a Chancellor who recognises the value of science to the economy. Nanotechnology will lead to exciting advances across the board, from medicine to engineering and we want a decent chunk of the market. The Chancellor 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.”

Further information on the work of the Committee can be obtained from Committee staff on 020 7219 2793/4.

Previous press notices and publications are available on the Committee's internet homepage

Notes for Editors

Nanotechnology can be defined as the manipulation of matter atom by atom to create products and processes. It is estimated that the worldwide market for nanotechnology-related products will be worth £105bn by 2005 and £700bn by 2010.

The Committee held five oral evidence sessions during the course of the inquiry between October 2003 and January 2004.

A Report commissioned by Government from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering into the potential social, environmental and health implications of nanotechnology is expected to be published in summer 2004.

The evidence taken in this inquiry is published separately as HC 56-II of Session 2003-04. 

Under the terms of Standing Order No. 152 the Committee is empowered to examine the "expenditure, policy and administration of the Office of Science and Technology and its associated public bodies". The Committee was appointed on 12 November 2001.