If you think that nanotechnology is this year's buzzword, you might be surprised to learn that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been funding research in the field for at least a decade. But the last couple of years have seen an explosion of interest in the science of the very small, and the reason is all about the way you consider the problem, according to the EPSRC's Peter Smith. "Whereas 10 years ago nanotechnology was thought of as making things smaller and smaller through precision engineering, now it is becoming feasible to actually build materials and devices from the bottom up," he explains. "There is a lot of excitement about combining both approaches," he adds, and this has catalysed a resurgence of interest.
This interest is reflected in a number of new initiatives, several of which involve EPSRC collaborating with its biologically orientated sister research councils, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), to stimulate and fund research in nanobiotechnology. In particular the three councils are in the process of choosing two winning bids, from a shortlist of five, for the formation of Interdisciplinary Research Centres (IRCs) in nanotechnology, one of which will have a biotech focus. The two IRCs, to be announced in summer 2001, will be funded to the tune of £9 million each over a 6-year period, after which they should be established enough to compete against more traditional areas of science for non-ring-fenced cash.
The IRCs will link researchers at several institutions from different disciplines, and that's also the idea of the nanotechnology networks recently funded by EPSRC. Getting people from different disciplines talking "to get past the inhibition of language" is crucial to this emerging field, says Michael Horton, a nanobiotechnologist at University College London and the co-ordinator of the Nanotools for Biomedicine Network. Horton's network, for example, includes an optical physicist, an electrochemist, and someone with a theoretical interest in surface interactions, drawn from universities across the UK. Successful networks should lead to full-scale research funding proposals, explains Smith. But the IRCs will be "the biggest spur" to the development of the field in the UK over the next few years, says Horton, who estimates that they will train around 30 Ph.D. students and at least 20 postdocs in their first 6 years.
The research councils are also keen on encouraging new entrants to the field. Both BBSRC and MRC have made nanotechnology a priority area for Ph.D. studentships commencing in October 2001. Details of supervisors given BBSRC studentship awards in bionanotechnology are already available. The MRC is considering applications from potential supervisors at the moment and expects to fund five dedicated nanotechnology studentships. Details of the departments awarded studentships will be available on their Web site in a month or so.
For those a little further along the career path it's definitely not too late to take the plunge. Kevin Moreton, strategic projects manager at MRC, says that they are particularly keen to encourage physicists and chemists into this area. Moreton points out that the MRC has special Discipline Hopping Awards, which offer physical scientists the opportunity to work in a biological team for up to a year. Nanotechnology is also a priority area for the EC. It currently funds about half a dozen Research Training Networks in the field of nanobiotechnology to provide training for both pre- and postdoctoral researchers.
Funding for major nanobiotechnology research projects is also available from the EC. Adam Curtis is the project co-ordinator for the 3-year "non-stick or sticky medical devices" programme which began in October 2000 and involves researchers in Italy, Sweden, Greece, and Germany as well as the UK. He has about 20 researchers in his group at the University of Glasgow, backed up by the expertise of around 30 engineers at the Centre for Cell Engineering. According to Curtis, now is a good time to enter the field as a postdoc, with significant numbers of positions being funded at this level. He gets plenty of applications from people with a biological sciences background, but far fewer from physicists and chemists.
So, because this is definitely a growing field of employment, how can you increase your chances of breaking in? Mark Talary, a postdoc in the Institute of Molecular and Biomolecular Electronics at the University of Wales Bangor describes the institute as "an engineering department with cell culture facilities," and says, "you need to have experience outside your core discipline." In choosing your environment, he says, "look for departments that have a wide range of expertise and skills." And practicality plays a part too. Curtis says he looks for people with a track record in "getting things made and working." Oonagh Loughran, scientific development manager at the Institute of Nanotechnology, says that a broad-based approach to science and "the ability to communicate on a functional basis with scientists from all disciplines" will stand you in good stead. But beware, Loughran warns that combining these diverse skills is not as easy as it sounds! Horton says, "open-mindedness" is what he's looking for, and suggests that "the Web is the thing" when it comes to finding a job. You don't see many jobs advertised at the moment he says, though he predicts there will be many more, so making a direct approach to people already working in the area and setting out the skills you have to offer is your best bet.
Most of the opportunities now and in the immediate future are likely to be in academia, particularly when the new IRCs get started. Many British companies have been slow to recognise the potential of nanobiotechnology, according to Curtis. But already the major pharmaceutical companies have research efforts in the field, and "start-ups are constantly popping up," says Talary. He should know. He's about to leave Wales for sunny California and a job at a brand new nanobiotech firm.