Lab Notes

09 Nov 2005 | News
Tracking 15 key technologies, fraud in nanotechnology - and other insights into R&D management

Tracking 15 key technologies, fraud in nanotechnology – and other insights into R&D management

Too busy to read what they write about R&D? Never fear. At Science|Business we love this stuff. Here’s the cream off the top of recent publications.

EU reports on 15 key technologies

The EU puts a lot of effort into surveying the technology landscape. And its position means that these exercises can draw on a wide range of expertise from throughout Europe. Whether this makes for quality is another matter. It does, though, mean that it is worth looking at the output, certainly when it touches on your own area.

This new batch of "Fifteen expert reports on key research and technology domains for Europe's future" comes from the EU's Foresight initiative. We like the comment that "Europe needs to project a more optimistic, proactive approach in its research policy, rather than being deterred by its weaknesses and threats." Europeans are great at looking on the gloomy side, while Americans are ever the optimists - sometimes without reason. On the same front, the group also says that "in benchmarking itself with the United States (US) and Japan, Europe needs to adopt a strong 'differentiation' approach rather than an 'imitation' approach, where the emphasis is in building on Europe’s particular strengths and competencies in current, potential and emerging sectors".

Meanwhile, the EU has also launched a new web site to track progress to its stated target, of spending 3 per cent of gross domestic product on R&D. It isn't just a plan to put more into R&D, but also to get more out in the process. "Leveraging investment in R&D became a key element of this strategy following the Barcelona European Council’s objective to raise overall R&D investment to 3% of GDP by 2010."

Roke Manor opens lab – but what about the wine cellar?

How times have changed in British industrial research. “After more than 15 years, manufacturers will get access to Roke Manor Research's world-class cellular design and development capability,” begins a statement from Roke Manor Research. Why is that interesting? Because Roke Manor is no ordinary lab. It was founded in 1956 by Plessey, and then picked up by Siemens after it and GEC gobbled up the smaller telecoms manufacturer. The facility, near Romney, is one of the old-style "country house" R&D centres so familiar in Britain.

Ask them to tell you about what happened to the wine cellar during the hand-over from GEC. Since then, Roke has steadily taken on more contract work for other companies. It has opened up access to its mobile telephony work because Siemens is selling off its own mobile division to BenQ.

Meanwhile, another great British research institution is changing hands: Sweden’s Ericsson is to buy assets of Marconi for £1.2 billion.

Sentimentality has come to the forefront in the British newspaper articles written about Ericsson's "garage sale" purchase of the technology bits left over after Marconi imploded. At one time, Marconi was a research powerhouse of the first order. It ran the usual "country park" central labs and had researchers scattered all over the place, not to mention strong links with academic groups. By the time Marconi hit the buffers, a lot of the technology had gone. Some of the more interesting bits, the photonics, went to Bookham Technology. A lot had just faded away.

But the company still had R&D facilities in 19 countries. In the last financial presentation before the latest news, the company was down to spending £200 million on R&D. (The company appears in the DTI's R&D Scoreboard as having an R&D investment of £628 million in 2001 and the latest scoreboard, out in October, puts the number at £186 million.) And that spending was, like much corporate R&D these days, very much short-term, with more than 50% going on products less than two years old or yet to be launched.

Ericsson's R&D spending dwarfs that of Marconi. The annual report for 2004 says that the company spent SEK 20.4 billion (€2.1 billion) on "R&D and other technical expenses". So it looks like Ericsson didn't buy Marconi for its research.

Nanotechnology executive fined for fraud

We have pointed out before now that nanotechnology runs the risk of becoming this year's "dot com" phenomenon. We did not anticipate, though, that it would succumb to some of the excesses of that era quite so quickly. A news report from Nanotechwire tells of a conviction in British Colombia for issuing false information about the achievements of a nanotech startup.

But there’s lots more nano news out there. A report from Lux Research tries to be scientific in assessing where countries stand in the league of R&D players in nanotechnology. And it has some surprises. "The U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Germany dominate today, but Taiwan and China will challenge them for leadership in the next seven years."

Maybe so, but the German Industry Federation won’t take it lying down. Germany likes to claim the No. 2 slot in the nanotechnology league when it comes to publications. (The US is top, of course.) If this map is to be believed, and why not, the country certainly looks like it has a case of nano measles, with spots all over the place.

A short guide to peer review

Anyone who puts money into scientific ventures should spend some time understanding how science works. For example, when someone shows up on your doorstep seeking money to back their technology, how do you know if it makes scientific sense? The answer is to ask if there is some peer-reviewed work you can read. Why? Because peer review is the process that the scientific world uses to weed out junk science. Sense About Science, a UK nonprofit organisation, has just produced a new guide. This is one of several documents that explains the process of peer review for the lay reader.

Tracking the science scene in Canada

Canada sometimes sits uneasily atop is bigger neighbour to the south. It certainly makes less of a big deal out of the quality of its academic research base. And yet there are areas where Canada thrives. Universities certainly seem to be doing well on the finance front. As the latest in an annual series of surveys shows, in 2004 they broke through the $5 billion level for sponsored research income, a whopping 1.7% increase in the previous year.

Meanwhile, another government report, from the National Science and Engineering Council, tracks university spin-outs there. Ten Canadian universities account for 98 of the 141 new companies spun out of academia. The report says these companies employ nearly 13,000 Canadians and generate more than $3.5 billion in annual sales.

Record growth for UK R&D companies

The Department of Trade and Industry has come in for some stick recently for writing press releases that do not reflect the reports they describe. We offer this link so that you can see if it agrees with our, or your, take on the recent R&D Scoreboard. They may be a bit over the top but we can probably accept statements like "Large foreign-owned companies are increasingly recognising the UK as a supportive base for R&D. 12 of the top 17 foreign-owned UK companies analysed have much larger R&D intensity than their parent companies, investing a high proportion of their global R&D effort in the UK." The departures from reality probably come with the bits the release does not highlight.

Investors becoming more positive towards renewables, suggests survey

We've talked before about the opportunities in alternative energy. Not an easy market to break into. But there are signs of optimism on the investment front. A new survey shows that the investment community is up for the idea. Now you just have to find something that might work. But please be careful about perpetual motion machines. There have been some odd reports of energy technologies that rewrite the laws of physics. We accept that these laws are not cast in stone, but they certainly have more staying power than the laws cobbled together by governments.

A research partnership in math  

Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh come together in the Edinburgh Research Partnership to promote "an exciting, vibrant, research venture in engineering and mathematics". It can be hard to get your head around mathematics, and that can make it difficult to see all of the commercial opportunities. And yet most of the software you see is built on algorithms, equations and stuff that just can't happen without maths. If this venture can do something to promote the cause of maths in spin-outs, it could have a wider impact than on the two universities involved.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up