I took the Circle Line round to Westminster this morning to drop in on the Uk Nanotechnology Showcase event being held at the DTI DBERR conference centre, which was rather interesting for some of the wrong reasons.
First up was the Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Ian Pearson, to give a Government view of nanotechnology. The Minister, who didn’t seem particularly well briefed on the subject reeled off the usual list of UK successful companies in the first nanosecond and then moved on to how exciting nanotechnology was because an American scientist by the name of Robert Merkle had said that we could fit the whole of human knowledge onto a sugar cube and then put it up our bottoms to cure cancer and live to be a thousand years old (I was still wondering about the Robert (surely Ralph?) Merkle reference so I may have slightly mangled that last bit.)
Anyway, nanotechnology has the potential to make lighter stronger bicycles and bouncier tennis balls, something that the Government believes contributes £23 billion to the UK economy, although once agin it was unclear whether that was per annum or between now and the next visitation of Halley’s Comet.
On the basis of this clear eyed view of what nanotechnology is and where it is heading, Government policy seems to consist mainly of creating stakeholder consultation groups and worrying about health, safety and ethical issues, something that was described as “Fruitful Dialogue.”
I may be over cynical here, but doesn’t it make sense to fund the science first rather than blow the budget on regulating its possible effects? To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, let’s concentrate on funding the known unknowns rather than worrying about unknown unknowns.
With the exception of Alan Windle who followed Minister Pearson with a clear explanation of what nanotechnology really is, Richard Jones who told us how much funding was being provided and why, Rob Aitken from SafeNano, and Gareth Wakefield of Oxford Advanced Surfaces who just seemed to be getting on with it, much of the rest of the morning was concerned with various NGOs and networks. The purpose of many these seemed rather unclear other than spending public money on helping people to do things that they didn’t know they needed to do such as bridging commercial chasms or realising that scientists are human beings rather than patronising ogres.
<OK I admit that public engagement is a good thing, but rather than sitting down with a cross section of society around kitchen tables from Hull to Halifax via hell, might it not be more efficient to give the editors of the news media a crash course in basic (nano)science?>
Two things struck me as the morning went on. Firstly, and most positively, that the UK has a well focused and well funded nanoscience sector that seems to be doing some rather exciting work. Secondly, and rather disappointingly, speaker after speaker trotted out the same potential applications of nanotechnologies which made me feel like I was back in 2003 again.
It’s odd how the future never quite fits the utopian vision. I went to see Osamu Tezuka‘s Astroboy last week which was made in the early 60’s but set in 2004, an era of space travel, atomic everything and of course self assembling robot machines. Rather than a future where the speed limit signs say 250kph as in the film, we now have cameras everywhere to limit us to 50kph and to fine you for putting your bin out a minute too early – a rather depressing use of technology
Overall, I think there is room for confidence in the UK. Despite there being a dearth of world class nanotechnology companies to point to, the science seems to be bubbling along quite nicely. It may be that some things take time to mature, and that the rather tortoise like UK will eventually overtake some of the hares, although after this morning I suspect that might be in spite of, rather than because of government policy.