By Professor Peter J Dobson
Nanotechnology has been well supported in the UK within a rather restricted budget, in ways that have encouraged the effective use of funds and with a clear policy to translate the outputs of basic research into future applications.
Before listing the positive aspects that have been achieved by the Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board it is worth reminding ourselves of why nanotechnology is so important for the future of business, the environment and society. Nanotechnology does appear to be fragmented, but it is this very fragmentation that makes it so important because aspects of it permeate into almost every aspect of human endeavour. Amongst these are:
Energy: new forms of energy generation depend heavily on our ability to design new types of robust inexpensive solar cells by making nanostructures that mimic photosynthesis or use new concepts of electrical charge separation; energy storage from intermittent power sources such as wind/solar demand the design of new types of batteries that will use nano-derived materials; other energy storage devices in vehicles will be based on supercapacitors which have nanostructured electrodes; wastage of heat can be avoided by new nano-thermal insulation and heat storage materials
Healthcare: There is going to be a revolution in new methods of point-of-care diagnosis and new imaging methodologies of disease conditions such as cancer. This and subsequent treatment will all be enabled by our ability to make nanoparticles tailored for different medical functionalities. Diagnosis and therapy may be combined to create theranostic treatments that enable clinician and patient to have more control. This will create new business, especially in the pharmaceutical industry, and improve the efficiency of healthcare by cutting both costs and patient waiting time.
Environmental care and Remediation: Nanotechnology is opening up new ways of monitoring and remediating our environment. We will have the capability to detect and capture hazardous compounds in air, water and soil. New methods of removal of salt and contaminants from water are almost certainly going to result from applications of nanotechnology. This is becoming increasingly important as water becomes a more scarce and valuable commodity.
Crops and Food: Nanotechnology has the potential to improve crop yield by better pest and disease control; food utilisation can be improved by better packaging and methods of processing, based on nanotechnology.
All of the above topics will be generating tens of billions of Euros of new business in the years ahead and unless we support the translational stage for nanotechnology, as a Nation we are going be dependent on imports and lose the value of our investment in the research that we have made.
The Research Councils have performed excellently in the nanotechnology area, despite investing much smaller amounts per GDP than our competitors. The highlights of what has been achieved are:
- Creation of 3 Centres for Doctoral Training in Nanotechnology in Bristol, Cambridge and Manchester. These are providing integrated training programmes for graduates prior to embarking on individual research projects and will play a pivotal role in training the next generation of scientists and engineers for industry and academia.
- Responsible Innovation: The Research Councils UK Nanoscience Programme is actively working to promote responsible nanotechnologies innovation, building on the recommendations made by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering in 2004 and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 2008. In 2006 the Environmental Nanoscience Initiative (ENI) was established to build a community of scientists with the relevant expertise to develop the evidence base to support policy making. The partners (NERC, EPSRC, Defra and the Environment Agency) are now joined by the US Environmental Protection Agency to establish the first major international programme in this area. This complements a number of awards made by the research councils through responsive mode, and through mechanisms such as signposting (by EPSRC and MRC) in the areas of nanometrology and nanotoxicology.
- Shared Equipment Initiative: Nanoscience and technology is a sophisticated activity, requiring routine access to expensive facilities which cannot be made available on every university campus. EPSRC has made six awards (to Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Imperial College, Manchester Metropolitan and Nottingham Universities) to enable access by the wider academic community to existing specialist facilities in those institutions for construction, manipulation and examination of nanoscale structures and systems. This is an excellent initiative, welcomed by the community, and deserving greater development.
- Access to Large and Mid-Range Facilities: In addition to the use of the large synchrotron and neutron facilities at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory, new facilities are being funded for the preparation and characterisation of nanomaterials at other centres, offering cost-effective research to many UK researchers.
- Grand Challenge Programmes: Nanoscience and Technology offers the potential for major scientific and technological breakthroughs in a number of key wealth-creating areas. To make significant progress, focussed and sustained effort is required on a national scale. Three “Grand Challenge” areas were identified (Nanotechnology for Energy; Nanotechnology for Healthcare; and Nanotechnology for the Environment), the first two of which are now funded. There was concern that the funding for the Energy programme was very low indeed (£6.5 million) in comparison to the immensity of the scientific and societal challenges in this area. As a result, the programme had been tightly focussed on the relatively narrow area of solar harvesting. The Healthcare programme is somewhat bigger (£15.5 million) and has attracted a large number of exceptionally high quality interdisciplinary applications, ten of which were funded in March 2009. Three projects on Carbon Capture and Utilization were selected and funded in March 2010. A successful stage gating approach has been conducted with the Technology Strategy Board for the first of these and this is being repeated for the healthcare projects later this year.
The UK will need to build on this excellent work funded by the Research Councils and strongly supported by the Technology Strategy Board by this new stage-gating process. It is imperative for our Government not to lose sight of the achievements and to increase spending on nanotechnology.