HC Deb 08 July 2003 vol 408 cc231-6WH 3.30 pm
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury)

By happy coincidence, this debate follows one on genetic modification. The mess that we have got ourselves into with GM should be a salutary lesson. Let us hope that we do better with this latest emerging technology.

Nanotechnology is the science of the small. The breakthrough came in 1990, when IBM manipulated 35 individual atoms so that they spelled the letters IBM. That was an extraordinary scientific achievement, given that atoms are clubbable little numbers that like to stick together. Stringing them out was quite an achievement. It was also an advertising opportunity, and I do not suppose that it was a mistake on the part of the company that it strung the letters out into the magical three letters. The fact that it did gives us a window on to the opportunities and risks inherent in the technology, and this debate gives us a chance to address the risks and opportunities and what the Government are doing about them.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead the first debate in Parliament on a technology that has the potential to revolutionise the way we live. It is important to explode a few myths. Michael Crichton, author of "Jurassic Park", has written another book called "Prey", the starring cast of which are an army of nanobots, self-replicating miniature robots that end up covering the planet in what is described as grey goo. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has taken the matter up in a fairly big way, andThe Mail on Sunday led in April with "Charles' Grey Goo Threat to the World." Two Nobel prize winners for chemistry, Sir Harry Kroto and Sir Aaron Klug, take a contrary view to that of the Prince of Wales. The former says: It shows a complete disconnect from reality. He should take a degree in chemistry, or at least talk to someone who understands it, rather than reading silly books. I am not sure that Crichton's multi-million pound bestseller can be so easily dismissed and Prince Charles should not be, but that is Nobel laureates for you.

Secondly, practical nanotechnology is here already. It is not something for decades in the future; we have nanomachines cruising our bodies in the form of antibiotics. Many of us will have been fascinated by the elegant schematics recently shown on the television featuring fuzeon, the latest drug in the fight against HIV, which works at a molecular level. We are dealing with extensions of what we have already, rather than futuristic things of the sort conjured up by Michael Crichton.

So what are the risks, if any? Much of the excitement over nanotechnology rests with the nanotube, a small cylindrical structure of carbon-based molecules that shows great promise as the basis for the next generation of semiconductors, and therefore microchips. However, animal tests suggest that inhaling them could cause serious lung damage. Important though that is, such risks do not seem to be as apocalyptic as those that Prince Charles may have envisaged. They seem akin to the occupational health challenges that many already encounter. Presumably, they could be dealt with in a similar way. The Royal Society of Chemistry, which I have the pleasure of advising, is keen to make that point. It says that the ethical, social and environmental issues to do with nanotechnology are not unique and can be dealt with using existing regulations. I agree.

It appears to have dawned on the Government later than on most that nanotechnology could revolutionise manufacturing and commerce, and that we had better address it. That is where nano parts company with genetic modification. The former will pervade all sectors, whereas GM is more discrete. Not doing nano means not competing in great swathes of industry. One may prevaricate over GM and blight the farming sector, but if one prevaricates over nano one stands to blight the whole of our industry and commerce. That is not an overstatement.

Dr. John Taylor, the director general of Research Councils UK, was asked to produce a report, which surfaced in the Office of Science and Technology last June as "New Dimensions for Manufacturing: A UK Strategy for Nanotechnology." It contained a road map—we seem to be in the season of road maps, and we have one for nanotechnology—for the UK Government to follow to bring them up to speed in turning the basic science in this field, which we do very well, as we do most basic science, into commercial reality. It is ambitious and sets an ambitious time scale, which suggests that Dr. Taylor feels that we have much ground to make up. The tightness and ambition of his time scale are symptomatic of the urgency that he feels is necessary to bring us up to speed.

According to Taylor's road map in the OST report, we must have a nanotechnology applications strategy board immediately to develop and articulate a coherent and coordinated strategy for accelerating the applications of nanotechnology as widely as possible across the economy. He insists that by 2004 we must have at least two national nanotechnology fabrication centres to "incubate new businesses" from the basic nanoscience that our scientists are so good at. So concerned was Taylor that he said that those centres should be established "urgently", and that funding by the end of 2002 should be one of the highest priorities for the DTI. Dr. Taylor's insistence was no doubt influenced by the fact that the USA already has a number of highly advanced fabrication centres. It has stolen a march on us, that is for sure.

In the UK, to use maritime parlance, we appear to be under way but not making way. Mark Welland, professor of nanotechnology at Cambridge, is obviously frustrated and said in The Times last month: Every month that goes by without the decision being made is a month in which our competitors get further ahead. We were in a position to take a lead, and while I'm sure that we will be a very strong performer, it would have been nice to have led the way rather than scurrying along behind. I should be grateful if the Minister could say where we are with the Taylor road map, the nanotechnology applications strategy board and our fabrication centres. Could he address those points specifically, head on?

What Ministers have done—hurrah, they have done something—is commission another investigation. The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society have been tasked to investigate nanotechnology and report back in late spring 2004. That investigation will be chaired by Professor Ann Dowling. Given Taylor's lengthy report, it is not entirely clear what more Ministers hope to get from that, other than being seen to do something.

Professor Dowling's tasking seems to be weighted in the direction of risks and regulations rather than opportunities and how the Government might provide support in the interests of British trade, commerce and industry. Anticipating harmful regulation, Otilia Saxl, the chief executive of the Institute of Nanotechnology, has fired a warning shot across the legislators' bows pointing out: A sharp knife in your kitchen can be used to cut a steak or to stab someone. You cannot legislate against knives because a few people misuse them. And it's the same for nanotechnology. I concede that the Dowling study may be an attempt to balance the full-steam-ahead approach of the Taylor investigation. However, I remain concerned that in setting up this further committee we are simply parking the issue for another year at a time when the US, Japan, Germany and even France are forging ahead and far outstripping the UK Government in tangible support given to nanotechnology.

Public debate is very important. We need to get it right and address the legitimate concerns that so many have expressed about nanotechnology, even at this early stage. That should not be an excuse for prevarication and substituting committee investigation and one commission after another for definitive action. My fear is that that is precisely what we are doing. Surely we should have learned something from our handling of GM.

Others in the van of GM, if I may touch upon that briefly, are far better placed than the UK to capitalise on its likely benefits. Other Governments have clearly taken the view that the potential for GM to benefit the lives of the global many, not to mention their domestic agricultural centres and agri-industries is enormous. The UK, true to form, has parked GM by embarking on a series of consultation exercises. Are we doing the same with nanotechnology? Consultation is important but many have questioned the value of the public debate on GM orchestrated by the government.

Crucially, the Government's initiative "GM Nation?" will conclude before three valuable pieces of evidence are available. We heard at length about those during the previous debate. As a salutary warning for our future handling of nanotechnology, those are the Government field studies due in September, Professor David King's scientific report on GM in the summer, and the strategy unit's economic report also due in the summer. Those crucial pieces of evidence will not be available for the public consultation exercise. That exercise will cost £500,000, as opposed to £2.5 million for a similar exercise in little Belgium, and £2 million in the even less populous New Zealand.

The exercise will be poorly informed, badly advertised and certainly cheap. No wonder it has been dismissed as chaotic by an alliance of the Consumers Association, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the National Trust, Unison, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sustain, and that repository of sound good sense, the National Federation of Women's Institutes. It looks to me like a window dressing exercise.

We must not allow the public debate on nanotechnology demanded by the better regulation task force report of January and accepted in principle by Government to be similarly ill informed and chaotic. The BRTF was quite right in calling for a public debate, and the Government were right to support it. I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some reassurance on that today and assure us that we will not see the kind of chaos and ill-informed debate that we have had on GM.

We need to know to what extent the debate will exist in the realm of the hypothetical given the constraints imposed by the European Union. Drawing on our experience of GM, we know that EU directive 2001/18 means that a decision on the authorisation of GM products is subject to a majority vote of member states. We must assume that there will be directives from the EU dealing with nanotechnology in due course. However, the RAE-RS study on nanotechnology makes no mention of that in its preamble or opening remarks. As the Minister formulates our position on nanotechnology, I would like to know to what extent and in what areas he anticipates the EU impacting on the Government's latitude.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's mitigation for the UK's late start, because that has happened very much on his Government's watch. Perhaps he can say where his early thoughts lead him in terms of Government funding opportunities, what he is doing to assess the risks of the emerging technologies and where he thinks the risks might lie. That would be very useful. I should be especially grateful if he could tell us what has become of Taylor's road map, and the nanotechnology applications strategy board and the fabrication centres, to which the Taylor report and the OST road map referred. Perhaps he would let us know what, if anything, has happened. Finally, we need to know whether the Minister intends a permissive regulatory environment, in what areas he anticipates constraints and to what extent his room for manoeuvre is likely to be limited by the EU. Nanotechnology deals with the very small, but its potential is very large and we must not miss this opportunity.

3.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) on his success is securing the debate. He is a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. Nanotechnology promises benefits for the environment, our health and the wealth of our economy. Put simply, it is the application of material sciences at around the nanometre scale—that is, one billionth of a metre. It consists of a collection of technologies derived from other areas of science and engineering such as electronic engineering, chemistry, physics and biology. In that respect it is not new. Nanoparticles have been detected in the glazes of 15th century pottery and carbon black has been used in the manufacture of tyres for the past 100 years. Nanotechnology is available now in self-cleaning glass, vehicles with nanocomposite panels and computers containing processors and memory with nanoscale features.

It is important that as the technology develops people feel confident about it. My colleague in the Department of Trade and Industry, Lord Sainsbury, recently commissioned an independent study by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to look at current and future developments in nanotechnology and to find out whether the technology raises new ethical, health and safety, environmental or social issues that have not already been covered by current regulations. An important function of the study will be to separate fact from fiction and to focus on Crick rather than Crichton. It is worth noting that one of the original proponents of the "grey goo" theory, Eric Drexler, has recently stated that such fears should not be used as an excuse to halt research or to introduce crude and oppressive regulatory regimes.

The study has been commissioned as a reflection of the Government's response to recommendations by the better regulation task force in its report on "Scientific Research: Innovation with Controls", which was published in January this year. The wide range of disciplines and views connected with nanotechnology will be represented, including ethical, social and regulatory considerations as well as science and engineering. Wider stakeholder groups, including academia, industry and interest groups, will be approached for input and the public will be engaged. The final report of the study will be published and made public.

Few industries will escape the influence of nanotechnology. As the Prime Minister said to the Royal Society last year: Nanoscience…is startling in its potential. This kind of technology may create whole new industries and products we can't begin to imagine". Some predict a global market in nanotechnology worth more than $1 trillion in a decade. We need to ensure that the UK wins a share of that prize with a prosperous, world-class nanotechnology sector in the UK. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, in 2001 Lord Sainsbury set up an advisory group chaired by Dr. John Taylor, director general of Research Councils UK, to advise on actions needed to improve the UK's capability in nanotechnology and related technologies. His group found that the UK's strengths in nanoscience and nanotechnology provided a strong foundation on which to develop nanotechnology for the benefit of companies in the UK. His report in June 2002 highlighted a number of actions that should be taken. They include the reduction of the mismatch between our research and industrial capabilities, improved UK access to international research and development, improved access to manufacturing facilities to enable industry to trial its ideas and to create a stable, visible and coordinated strategy for public support. Following that report, Lord Sainsbury's officials have visited key fabrication facilities in the US and Europe to gain firsthand knowledge of how best to implement such manufacturing facilities in the UK. They also visited a number of UK academic and industrial centres to gain a clear picture of the depth of capability already present in the UK.

Of particular interest are the two interdisciplinary research collaborations in nanotechnology which have been established at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Those collaborations are funded by three of the Government's science research councils. DTI officials are also in regular contact with other Government Departments and agencies with a clear interest in nanotechnology, such as the Department of Health, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and all the research councils.

The hon. Gentleman asked about funding. The Government are investing£184 million to ensure that we gain maximum advantage from our investment in nanotechnology. We are determined to put the UK at the forefront of nanotechnology development. Existing Government investment in nanotechnology already totals£94 million, which includes all research council funding with £70 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and £16 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Last week, Lord Sainsbury announced a cash injection of a further £90 million over the next six years to implement those recommendations and so help industry to harness the commercial opportunities offered by nanotechnology. Of that fund, £90 million will be available for collaborative research and development between industry and our science base. That should encourage UK companies to take advantage of the strength of our science base to develop new products and processes and provide their academic partners with new challenges to drive forward new areas of research. Strengthening those collaborative links is vital if we are to gain maximum advantage from the EU sixth framework programme, particularly the third priority area of nanotechnology, materials and processes, which we estimate to be worth some £900 million.

The UK development agencies have responded positively to the creation of a UK nanotechnology network. That netwc rk will receive £40 million from the fund to provide industry with access to cutting-edge nanotechnology research and resources in academic and industrial facilities throughout the UK. Existing and anticipated micro and nanotechnology projects supported by the UK development agencies are expected to exceed £200 million over the next few years. That substantial investment will help UK companies to take advantage of the exciting commercial opportunities offered by scientific advances in nanotechnology and compares very favourably with the level of investment of our major competitor nations.

Nanotechnology will change the future and I hope that the actions that I have outlined on behalf of Lord Sainsbury will ensure that it is a change that will benefit the UK as a whole. I thank the right hon. Gentleman again for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate today.

3.53 pm

Sitting suspended.