The UK launched a nanotechnology research programme in the mid-1980s when few other countries had recognised the potential of this new technology. But activity eased when enthusiasm dwindled, accoridng to a report on the Cordis news service.
"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," notes the report, which has been compiled by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.
The story is all the more dispiriting because the UK was recognised to be ahead of the game when a nanotechnology research programme was started in the mid 1980s, it notes.
The committee blames the fall-back on a lack of foresight and leadership within the UK Government's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the scientific community,noting that there was a reluctance to invest in the expensive facilities needed to carry out this type of research without any firm grasp of the potential.
But the country could rue this decision in years to come, as the applications of nanotechnology
This loss of leadership on the international nanotechnology stage has translated into a decline in participation in the nanotechnology sections of the EU's framework programmes for research.
The UK secured 15 per cent of the EU funding available for nanotechnology projects under the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), and one third of participants came from industry. Statistics on the response to the first call for proposals for FP6's 'nanotechnology, materials and production technologies' thematic priority show that while the UK represented 11 per cent of participants in the proposals submitted (second only to Germany), UK industrial participation accounted for only 5.5 per cent of the total available funding.
At present, only 10 UK universities offer courses with nanotechnology highlighted as a specific element in the title. Four of these are at undergraduate level, but, the report states, 'It is our view that undergraduate courses in nanotechnology are more of a desperate scheme to attract people into science courses than an attempt to provide the right skills for subsequent employment."
Universities should focus on developing these skills at postgraduate level in an interdisciplinary environment, accoridng to the Science and Technology Committee, while at undergraduate level, it should increasingly form a component of standard physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and engineering courses.
The report also calls on the government to move away from its 'muddled' strategy of funding research and facilities, with funding going primarily to existing research and facilities that are dispersed around the UK, in favour of a more orchestrated.