Today’s announcement by the UK Science Minister David Willets that it is “most unlikely” that the UKs 24 nanotech centres would still be open in 18 months comes as no surprise to anyone who has visited them.
I was lucky to have been involved in the set up of several of the centres, and while there is some great work going on, one has to agree with the opinion that most of them are simply too small to do anything useful, but the problem was always one of politics rather than one of science.
Unlike France,where a decision was made to create an innovation cluster in Grenoble, the UK nanotech strategy was always at the mercy of the various regional development agencies (RDAs), so instead of three or four large and well funded facilities, which is what you would expect in the country the size of the UK, we ended up with a patchwork of poorly funded centres, under capitalised with no clear vision other than to put a tick in a box for a RDA official. That’s why the UK plastic electronics centre is in a former pit village in County Durham rather than the outskirts of Cambridge.
As such the strategy was always doomed to failure, and we made this quite clear at the time, but it gives me no pleasure to have been proved right.
But its not all bad news. Some centres, such as the one at Cambridge was very successful in leveraging industrial funding from companies such as Nokia, while some in the North East have had strong regional support and made it to critical mass.
For many of the other centres, closure will be no huge loss to the UK economy, or to British science. One which shall remain nameless still has only half a dozen mainly administrative staff, no clear agenda and no prospect of future funding.
In the end, successful nanotech centres will be able to attract additional funding, those simply relying on government hand outs won’t. It’s time that the UK Government admitted that it got the strategy horribly wrong, and ensure that the lessons of the UK nanotech debacle are learnt.