In 2011 he went to Manchester University to laud Britain’s graphene hub and its Nobel laureates Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselof. On the spot, he pledged £50 million for a graphene institute. Britain was going to back the new technology, create a new industrial revolution and, in Osborne’s words, launch “a March of the Makers”.
The National Graphene Institute officially opened in March 2015 (Osborne, of course, presiding). But a shiny new building does not an industry make. Sir Andre Geim, graphene’s discoverer at Manchester University, has said that the government has invested “in the building industry rather than science”.
What has gone wrong? It seems that the industrial partners the Institute has chosen to develop British research are not likely to be the founders of the new British industrial revolution. In October 2015 it was announced that:
“The University of Manchester's National Graphene Institute will be showcasing its groundbreaking research to Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, and in particular the work carried out in partnership with the Chinese company BGT Materials.”
BGT’s lead graphene product is a new LED lightbulb, said to be the most efficient so far. Fine, but BGT is a Chinese company, not a British marching maker. James Baker, director of the NGI , said that his team his team is keen to attract other Chinese businesses to invest in R&D facilities at the National Graphene Institute.
In the EU’s Horizon 2020 Projects: Portal, autumn 2014, I wrote:
“A graphene industry won’t be created in the UK by providing increasing amounts of funding for to researchers; industry needs to be involved, and companies like Samsung are, of course, already becoming involved elsewhere, which raises the danger that graphene will become another typical British story: we got the Nobel prize but didn’t get the industry.” http://www.horizon2020publications.com/H4/#96
What was needed was for some large UK industrial companies with nanofabrication expertise to link up with the university researchers to develop and commercialise graphene technologies. Most technological innovations come from industry, not from blue skies scientific research. Here’s a list (more or less random and partial) of companies that might once have been candidates for this:
English Electric, Marconi, Ferranti, ICL, Vickers, AEI, Inmos, Mullard, STC, GEC. Some of these are double booked because they were swallowed in the great amalgamations that mostly ended with the rump of what was once a mighty industry (Lord Weinstock’s GEC for example) being sold to foreign companies. What’s left of Britain’s hi-tech manufacturing mostly resides in just two companies: BAE Systems and Rolls Royce. But these are specialised as mostly defence and aerospace manufacturers, with little or no nano expertise.
The industrial companies in which graphene could have found a home were killed off by the wave of financialization ushered in by Mrs Thatcher’s Big Bang of deregulation in 1986, by the associated high pound, by bad management, and by a general lack of vision. But even without such companies, the UK must possess some industrial know-how in nanofabrication? Did it really have to be left to BGT Materials and those other companies the NGI is trying to woo? And it shouldn’t have been Osborne who took graphene under his wing but the Department of Trade and Industry. But of course in 2011we had no such ministry in the UK. Why? Because we were told that “government can’t pick winners”. Strangely, Osborne has been allowed a special exemption from this prohibition: when he’s not cutting he’s busy spending on vanity projects. Graphenegate shows that his megaprojects are likely to unravel like his budgets and his deficit reduction predictions. They just take a little longer.