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UN medal for St Andrews Professor

Wednesday 12 October 2016

unesco-scott-award-mainbody‌‌A St Andrews Professor, whose ground-breaking work in nanotechnology started off as a ‘laboratory curiosity’, has been awarded a major honour by the UN.

Professor Jim Scott was honoured with the UNESCO medal for 'Contributions to Nanoscience and Nanotechnology' at their headquarters in Paris last night (11 October).

The medal was awarded in recognition of Professor Scott’s pioneering research on ferroelectric materials and devices, including the nano-memories that are used in millions of e-money smartcards around the world.

Now commericalised in an industry worth around £100m, Professor Scott originally designed the memories more than 30 years ago in a Colorado lab with zero funding.

Professor Scott said: "I am very grateful for this recognition. This work began in 1984 and has taken more than 30 years. It is not like winning the lottery; instead it represents working weekends for several decades with the tolerance of a very patient wife. 

“The project was unusual because it started in a university lab with no funding, one professor, one very young assistant professor, and only two students. It went all the way to £100 million a year in devices being produced commercially, but I get zero royalties, since my patents have all expired.”

UNESCO’s prize for Nano-Science recognises that making electronics smaller is not only useful, but that the side effect is that much less power is used. This in turn prevents environmental pollution, carbon emissions, and disposal of component materials, which sometimes include lead and other heavy metals.  

Professor Scott, who has a joint appointment in the Schools of Chemistry and Physics & Astronomy at St Andrews, joined the University last year after 16 years at the University of Cambridge.

His paper 'Ferroelectric Memories' in Science (1989) is thought to be the most cited paper in electronic ceramics with 4000 plus citations, and his work has been cited 40,000 times in scientific journals. In 2014 he won the Thomson-Reuters Citation Laureate prize, which describes itself as a predictor of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Professor Scott’s world-leading research on ferroelectric thin films began in the 1980s whilst at the University of Colorado, and includes both the basic science of the materials and their application in devices.

Today’s commericalised products - computer memories and subway fare cards similar to the London oyster card - are currently made and used in Korea and Japan.

Despite studying at Harvard and spending two decades on the faculty of Cambridge, Professor Scott did not come from an academic family. The New Jersey-born scientist said: “My father was orphaned at a young age and by 13 was working in a coal mine. My mother was the youngest of ten children and was partially blinded in an automobile accident at 14. I grew up in a working class, racially mixed community and attended a state school in a village. I did not expect to be a professor at Cambridge and at St Andrews, or to win a medal from the United Nations for my research.

“I continue this line of research at St Andrews and hope that some of our newer developments will find their way into commercial devices as well; but, to be honest, I do this work because of intellectual curiosity - because it's fun. Scientists are among the lucky few in life, like actors or professional athletes, who get paid for pursuing their hobbies.”


Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews: contact Gayle McIntyre on 01334 467227, or the Press Office on 462530 or proffice@st-andrews.ac.uk.