I popped along to the UK Nanoforum conference last week and what I found wasn’t a particularly pretty sight, especially in comparison with the previous week’s Nanosolutions/ 4th Nanotech Hesse Forum the week before.
The main difference between the two events was in the number of people actually doing things, rather than talking about them or supporting them. While the German exhibition was dominated by people making nanomaterials or applying them (hardly surprising given the strength of the German chemical industry) the UK event was dominated by the usual associations and regional development authorities which is also hardly surprising given the amount of funding they have to play with. An article in this week’s Spectator serves to illustrate the growth of self serving bureaucracies in the UK, and one has to wonder whether it would have been more useful to spend the money on something else instead.
The theme of the event was partnerships, and UK Trade and Investment had done their usual superb job of bringing in delegations from around the world to see the best that the UK has to offer in nanotechnology, but the best that they could offer was that UK nanomaterials company. Given that the Government claims that Nanotechnology is one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors, one would expect to see a few different companies being shown off, rather than one that lost 90% of its value and recently seemed to be claiming that the trials of its fuel additive failed because Petrol Ofisi didn’t do them properly. Apparently Stagecoach, one of their investors, is about to do a new trial to show that the products do indeed work, although I am sure that the markets would like to see a more independent trial.
Overall there is a lingering impression that the UK Government rather missed the boat on nanotechnology. A bright start, including the Royal Society report, seems to have been frittered away through paralysis and inaction. The Royal Society, for one, were particularly incensed by the lack of any response to, or action on their recommendations. While other countries have a variety of nanotech research centres, it is hard to detect any centre of excellence in nanotechnologies that didn’t already exist several years ago, and that is really quite worrying.
In contrast the German event was packed with national and local government leaders announcing new funding measures to ensure that German industry and society could take maximum advantage of nanotechnologies. The Germans seem to have a plan, and a vision for nanotech, whereas the UK seems to be more worried about the health and safety of yet to be produced materials and products. If the UK was a clear global leader in nanotoxicology I might be able to understand this obsession with regulation and control, but it isn’t so I can’t.
However, the UK is not unique in this respect, and there will be plenty of commercial opportunities in nanotechnologies, but many of these will be in spite of, rather than because of government action.