Adrian Alsop, Director for Research, Training and Development
Economic and Social Research Council
The Economic and Social Research Council is considering how best to take forward
some of the pressing research areas in our areas of responsibility. We will
want to take full account of the report of your study. In the meantime, we have
produced our own report which I think you will you will be aware of and we are
developing our own thinking.
Set out below are some observations that may be helpful to your current consultation.
If you would like more detail, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
- we assume this is the start of a process-here participants were mainly academic
scientists and engineers. We trust this will be followed up with similar opportunities
for other scientists, especially toxicologists and social scientists- and
for business contributions. In particular, the relationship of the technologies
turning into new products needs more attention.
- There does seem to be a need for a major hazard mapping exercise given
the wide range of possible risks mentioned here (from fire hazard to environmental
risk to dangerous interactions with protein folding).
- Similarly, there is a need for a major opportunities mapping exercise.
The applications listed are far from complete though correctly include land
remediation, clean water and faster cheaper computing.
- There was a welcome recognition here that nano products need to be thought
of in whole life terms from design to recycling. More attention will need
to be given to whether new regulatory are structures needed and what are the
likely displacement effects on established product- how will existing product
design, business processes and consumption patterns adjust to and shape new
arrivals? A major issue is hor far nanotechnologies are likely to be as pervasive
and important as say even more fundamental than the invention of plastics
- The report also rightly makes it clear at a number of points that there
are potential technological limits - things that cannot be done, or that can
be done on a tiny scale but not scaled up to industrial application. This
is brought out most clearly in the section on metrology. Metrology is already
a key issue in making today's chips and will become more so at the nano scale.
- The report is valuable in stressing that nanotechnology is already here.
The sunscreen is a good case in point. The motivation is appears to be nothing
to do with nanotechnology providing enhanced sunstopping performance. The
product's unique selling point seems to be to avoid the unsightly white smears
on the faces (etc) of users. ESRC could be particularly interested in supporting
a detailed research case study of this example of nanotechnologies in practice,
perhaps by contrasting, some products such as clothing or sports applications
eg ski wax which do offer actual performance enhancement as a selling point.
Self cleaning windows and the potential use of material that is highly toxic
is another area that needs investigation.
- With both current and prospective applications a major issue for me is
whether existing regulatory systems are going to cope or whether nanotechnology
requires new arrangements - to prove safety and to assure the public, which
are two different issues.
- The report separated nanoscience from nanotechnologies (we prefer the plural)
, this may not always be as helpful as other concepts can then be added eg
nanoengineering. Thinking of a spectrum rather than distinct groupings may
be more useful.
- With globalisation, attention needs to be given to what is the emerging
role of the UK in a global value chain of nanotechnology where the Asia Pacific
region can be expected to play an important role.
- The report suggests that the UK doesn't have a sufficiently strategic view
on the development of nanotechnologies compared to our major international
competitors and that potentially developments here will be held up due to
deficiencies of strategy. A 'road map' is certainly one tool as suggested
here to address this. It would be crucial for such a map to include social
science issues including regulation, risk and public confidence and not focus
solely on technical/technological developments. One issue is regulation of
the R&D development in this field - this too should be included within
a road map or discussions about developing a UK strategy.
- In a couple of places the report mentions public perception and the need
for scientists to engage with the public to inform them of or provide them
with a realistic projection of the potential (both positive and negative).
However, only in the very last paragraph does it talk about the potential
for discussion - this may be underestimating the potential for problems similar
to those encountered by GM style reactions.
- The solution suggested to address the need for better understanding is
through the provision of better science information in school and university
undergraduate curricula is quite narrow and should recognise that greater
understanding does not always lead to more support for a technology. Rather
than this "deficit" model a "confidence" model should
be used, in which, of course, education has its role to play. The ESRC funds
research on science education and more might be done relevant to nanotechnologies.
- Attention is drawn to the benefit from quicker funding decisions by Research
Councils. The ESRC is introducing just such a mechanism and would be happy
to consider nanotechnologies as a first use.
- Finally, it is said here that the nanotechnology community is not good at
networks, but this appears to be changing rapidly eg this consultation, the
recent Forum For The Future meeting. The ESRC looks forward to playing its
part in facilitating the further developments of networks.