Last month top people from science and industry assembled in Manchester to work out how to start the long-awaited graphene revolution.
In essence, graphene is a sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern, an atomic arrangement that gives the material highly desirable properties, such as almost unparalleled electrical conductivity and a strength tens of times that of steel. The material is flexible, super-thin (each sheet is just one atom thick), light and transparent, a combination of properties that makes graphene a potentially revolutionary material for the electronics and mobile-phone industries, among others.
In 2004 two researchers at the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, discovered how to make graphene using a graphite pencil and a piece of sticky tape. It looked as if we had an easy technological win on our hands. Geim and Novoselov were knighted, they won a Nobel prize, and the UK government poured £60m into the Manchester-based National Graphene Institute, opened by George Osborne in March.
The Chancellor had already announced that the NGI would have a sibling: the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre. This will have a similar budget, sit alongside the NGI in Manchester and enable graphene-based products to be “fast-tracked from the drawing board to the market”, as the Treasury press release put it.
Easier said than done. In some ways discovery has been the easy bit: most of the work lies in finding ways to mass-produce the material and incorporate it. So far, few people – if any – are making money from graphene.
A glance at the agenda for last month’s assembly makes that clear. More than a decade after the material was discovered, dedicated experts are still talking about “Getting graphene to market”, “Emerging trends and opportunities”, “Bridging the gap from lab potential to commercial reality” and, perhaps most important for British science, “Graphene in the European Union: future and emerging technologies”.
With a referendum on this country’s membership of the EU now a certainty, it is important to recognise that great facilities are useless unless put to use by people with rich ideas and creative imagination. Britain has more than its fair share of fine minds, but the UK is so good at science these days because its scientists are able to collaborate with the best in the world – many of whom are working in other EU countries.
It’s not jingoistic to say that Britain is a scientific powerhouse. These shores produce 16 per cent of the world’s highest-quality research yet they host just 1 per cent of the world’s population. EU funding comes “on the basis of scientific excellence”, according to the policy documents, and British science clearly is excellent: it pays into the pot of EU science money but gets back £1.40 for every £1 it contributes.
If we leave Europe because of the referendum, we stand to lose more than just money. Collaboration will become a problem. European Research Council funding requires projects to involve researchers from three different EU member (or associate) states. Today, good science is almost always collaborative: over one-third of the best journal papers result from international collaborations.
George Osborne has been relatively benign towards science up to now and makes no secret of his sense that scientific research underpins a strong economy. The stance on Europe taken by some members of his party threatens that. He can fund the creation of big institutes all he likes, but if Britain left the EU, our scientists would be left isolated, without influence or funding. And no wonder material on earth will change that.