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Environmental Protection & Preservation

Council for Science and Technology Reviews Government's Nanotechnologies Progress

The Government's leading advisers on science and technology fear that Britain may be falling behind in its engagement with the fast developing field of nanotechnologies. And the Government hasn't made the progress it promised in encouraging research into the possible risks stemming from developments in this new field. However there has been good progress in support for standards and metrology and in minimising workplace and public exposure to nanomaterials.

These are the main conclusions of the Council for Science and Technology (CST) in its "Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies Review" published today. The CST has been reviewing the Government's progress on commitments it made two years ago in response to the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report "Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties."

Professor Sir John Beringer, who chaired the CST sub-committee which carried out the review said, "There is a pressing need for a strategic programme of central Government spending into the toxicology, health and environmental effects of nanotechnologies. Without a substantial home research endeavour, the UK risks being left out in the cold in future international collaborations

"Although Government has made good progress in many areas, in research the progress has been less satisfactory. The past two years have shown responsive mode funding alone will not fill the knowledge gaps. To put it bluntly, the safe development of a new technology should not depend on whether an academic wins a highly competitive research grant.

"In 2004 the UK was seen as a world leader in its engagement with nanotechnologies. It is now widely believed to have lost that leading position and CST urges Government to take the swift and committed action necessary to regain it."

Main points of the Review:
  • Lack of progress on research into toxicology, health and environmental effects of nanomaterials.
  • However the current risk of exposure to workers or the public is extremely low.
  • The Government has done well in setting standards and metrology.
  • It has developed a valuable dialogue with industry on minimising the presence of nanomaterials in waste streams and in workplace exposure.
  • A number of good public engagement initiatives have been conducted but the Government needs to engage more deeply as the field develops.
  • The UK has played a strong role in the international organisations concerned with nano-technology - in ISO, the OECD and the EU - but there are concerns that future engagement may be jeopardised without a strong UK home research effort to bring to the table.
Two years ago the Government committed to "an immediate programme of research" and said that it "would expect substantial progress to have been made when the CST reviews progress after two years". However, over the last five years Government has spent an average of only £600 thousand/year to research the toxicology, health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials. This compares with total Government funding of £90 million in 2004 alone to advance research in nanoscience and nanotechnologies and promote their commercialisation.

The review says the balance between research to develop new applications of nanotechnologies and to provide the necessary underpinning for its safe and responsible development must be addressed. The primary reason for the lack of research into toxicology, health and environmental impacts is an over-reliance on responsive mode funding. CST calls for a strategic programme of central Government spending with targeted funds directed at pressing research needs.

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