This paper summarises the policies and initiatives supported by UK government that aim to encourage the responsible and positive use of technology. Two UK government departments are concerned with the technologies considered in this update, for very different reasons, and regional policy is also relevant.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) focuses on genetic technologies in relation to their impact on health and the environment. It is particularly interested in the possibility of (animal or plant) species crossing boundaries and affecting human health, seed productivity and crop productivity. Since 1994, DEFRA and its predecessors have commissioned a number of studies to gather data on the impact of agricultural release of genetically modified (GM) crops. Defra’s work tends to centre on supporting trials and research (from lab to commercial scale) to examine gene flow into crops and feral populations, as well as seeking to understand any long term health impacts of GM crops. Full details can be found on the Defra website.
The Department for Business Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) - formerly known as the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) - focuses on capturing the business opportunities from academic research to benefit the UK economy. Their Micro and Nanotechnology Manufacturing Initiative is providing £90 million in funding between 2003 and 2009 to help industry harness the commercial opportunities offered by Micro and Nanotechnologies (MNT). This money is being spent on collaborative R&D and a new network of MNT facilities. The investment is intended to match additional industry and regional spending of over £200 million. Within this Initiative, the DTI (now BERR) allocated £50 million for grants under an applied research programme of collaborative R&D linking industry and academia. £40 million was also allocated towards facilities development for a MNT Network.
The MNT Network Team has developed a web-based MNT Directory to promote the presence and capabilities of UK companies engaged in MNT to all potential customers, collaborators and suppliers.
In October 2004, the MNT Network Team launched the ‘Micro and Nanotechnology Forum’, a web-based resource for all UK MNT companies. It has a free news and patent searching service, a knowledge centre and an online conferencing facility with a searchable archive of past conferences.
To support infrastructure for nanotechnology, the DTI (now BERR) has a ‘Capital Facilities Programme’ which is establishing a network of ‘open access’ facilities using spare capacity in academia and industry. The overall aim behind these facilities is to drive market development and exploitation of nanotechnology across the UK by helping industry to access cutting-edge research and resources. A total of £22 million has been invested so far. An indication of the type of ambitious project that the DTI is seeking to support came when the first funded project was announced in August 2004. £3 million was allocated to Innovation in Nanotechnology Exploitation (INEX), an MNT cleanroom fabrication facility with a bio-nanotechnology and cell culture laboratory, plus microscopy, characterisation and analysis laboratories and fully serviced business facilities to house university spin-outs.
This was followed by eight more successful bids for funding from universities (Wales, Cardiff, Oxford, Imperial College and UCL, Nottingham, Queen Mary College) and companies (Applied Microengineering Ltd , Semefab Ltd). A further £20 million is due to be spent on facilities as a result of the third call of the Capital Facilities Programme which closed in April 2005.
The DTI (now BERR) covers genetic technology under the wider umbrella of biosciences. While 2003 saw a general fall across Europe in biotech business activity(1), and the UK suffered a reduction in biotech employment, the UK was still the single biggest contributor to the European picture. In that year, the UK sector’s 455 companies employed approximately 22,400 people and generated revenue of £3.6 billion. UK companies had 224 new drugs in clinical development or awaiting approval - half of the European total. UK companies raised £392 million of equity investment.
The DTI-sponsored Bioscience Innovation and Growth Team (BIGT) report, released in November 2003, provides the foundation for current policy. It details the current state of the UK bioscience sector (concentrating on healthcare applications) and sets out a vision for the future. One of its conclusions is that a more proactive stance is needed within Europe to shape future regulations and ensure they are acceptable to the UK. It recommends the creation of a Bioscience Risk Assessment Forum – now called the Bioscience Futures Forum (BFF).
DTI also provide i-bio, a website which provides access to a wide range of information on UK biotechnology. I-bio includes the UK Biotechnology Regulatory Atlas which signposts laws and official guidance, providing explanations and regularly updated commentaries.
Several regions in England have specific programmes to support nanotechnology and bioscience. These programmes are usually co-ordinated by the regional development agencies (RDAs) and offer networking and academic links. Sometimes there is business support or marketing assistance for small, technology-based start-ups. RDAs are particularly interested in the employment in their regions provided by new companies, and in retaining graduates from that region’s universities. This type of work is usually within the RDA’s ‘cluster’ or sector support.
Regions with programmes which specifically support bioscience businesses are:
The English regions and the UK’s devolved administrations support nanotechnology businesses through the MNT Facilities Network. The MNT Network aims to help lower the entry barriers and drive the widespread market development and exploitation of these technologies. The MNT network works closely with central DTI (now BERR) on the Capital Facilities Programme and provides match funding for some capital projects.
- Comparative Statistics for the UK, European and US Biotechnology Sectors - Analysis Year 2003
Also in this feature: