By Jonathan Fildes
BBC News science and technology reporter
The UK government has failed to fund adequate research into potential risks posed by developing nanotechnology, a report by leading advisors has warned.
Progress has been made to reduce exposure to nanomaterials
As well as not spotting possible harmful effects, the UK risked losing its world lead in nanoscience, it said.
The Council for Science and Technology (CST) review examined progress on government commitments made in 2005.
Science minister Malcolm Wicks welcomed the review and said government would "respond fully" to the report in time.
The word "nanotechnologies" describes an array of technologies from different areas of science including chemistry, engineering and biosciences.
At its most basic level, it involves manipulating molecules and even atoms to make novel materials.
This precision engineering exploits the unusual electrical and optical properties that operate at these small scales, for example.
Governments and big business have high hopes for the tiny science. It is estimated that the industry could be worth $1 trillion (£500bn) by 2015.
The CST report reviewed promises made by the UK government to develop nanotechnology.
The commitments were originally made in 2005, in response to a report commissioned by the government from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering.
This "seminal" report, published in 2004, outlined possible opportunities and risks from developing nanotech.
Although the new review found that the government had made progress in some areas, notably in measuring and minimising workplace exposure to nanomaterials, it found that not enough had been done to understand the possible environmental and health effects.
"The government made a very clear commitment that research needed to be done to understand more about the toxicology and possible risks that may arise from some of the nanotechnologies," said Professor Sir John Beringer, who chaired the CST review.
"But there has been virtually nothing done by government to resolve this problem."
The report points out that rather than outlining a systematic research programme to examine these potential risks, the government has relied on a reactive and ad hoc funding programme that has failed to deliver.
Over the last five years, government has spent an average of just £600,000 per year on examining the impacts of nanoscience. In 2004 alone, it spent £90m on research and promoting commercialisation of nanoproducts.
"The safe development of a new technology should not depend on whether an academic wins a highly competitive research grant," said Sir John.
Professor Ann Dowling, chair of the working group that produced the original 2004 report, agreed.
"More targeted research to reduce the uncertainties around the health and environmental effects of nanomaterials must be funded - especially in light of the growing number of products on the market containing these manufactured ultra-small materials.
"This is a vital step to ensuring that nanotechnologies are well regulated and inspire the confidence of the public and investors."
Without them, the UK risked losing the competitive edge it currently had in nanoscience, said Professor Dowling.
"The UK is putting itself in a position where it will be unable to take part in international collaborations because very little research is being done on these issues at home."
Malcolm Wicks, minister for science and innovation, said that the situation had arisen because more pressing research needed to be done over the last two years.
"Our focus so far has been on the areas which needed to be addressed first, such as the measurement and characterisation of nanoscale materials, and the exposure of laboratory and manufacturing staff," he said.
The government had spent £10m developing the capability to accurately measure and monitor nanomaterials, he said.
"Research is underway into potential health and environmental hazards, but we are disappointed that few researchers wishing to investigate the implications to human health have applied for the funding that is available."
Government and the research councils of the UK were now working on trying to develop the relevant research communities, he said.
"There are also huge opportunities under the EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), and we hope that UK researchers will take full advantage of them," he said.
FP7, which runs until 2013, will see more than 7bn euros (£4.6bn) per year handed to investigators to advance scientific knowledge in all areas. A pot of 3bn euros has been set aside for nanotechnology research, but none specifically for impact studies.
The government has said it will respond to the CST review fully at a later date.
The review is the first of two independent assessments of the government's commitments to nanotechnologies. The second will be conducted in 2010.
SOME POTENTIAL USES OF NANOTECHNOLOGIES
1 - Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) for displays
2 - Photovoltaic film that converts light into electricity
3 - Scratch-proof coated windows that clean themselves with UV
4 - Fabrics coated to resist stains and control temperature
5 - Intelligent clothing measures pulse and respiration
6 - Bucky-tubeframe is light but very strong
7 - Hip-joint made from biocompatible materials
8 - Nano-particle paint to prevent corrosion
9 - Thermo-chromic glass to regulate light
10 - Magnetic layers for compact data memory
11 - Carbon nanotube fuel cells to power electronics and vehicles
12 - Nano-engineered cochlear implant