The vast majority of health patents filed in nanotechnology are owned by organisations in developed countries, with China a notable exception, according to research published last month.
Yet, despite being a strong leader in this emerging field, which is predicted to generate a US$1 trillion industry by 2020, China is not participating in international debates on the role of nanotechnology in sustainable development, according to the study.
Don Maclurcan, of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, published his findings in the AzoNano Online Journal of Nanotechnology, based on a survey of health-related nanotechnology patents filed internationally between 1975 and 2004.
Nanotechnology is believed by many to be an important tool for sustainable development. Its experts have promised cheaper, more effective water filters, drug-delivery systems, solar panels, and methods of diagnosing diseases.
Maclurcan found that the United States, China and Germany are the top owners of patents, holding 33 per cent, 20 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively.
"The patent search gave us an overall picture of the global distribution of research into health-related nanotechnology," Maclurcan told SciDev.Net. "There is definite cause for encouragement for developing countries; China in particular is really starting to make its mark."
Maclurcan added that South Korea, which holds four per cent of health nanotechnology patents globally, is also becoming increasingly involved. India and Brazil hold 0.5 per cent and 0.1 per cent, respectively.
According to Roop Mahajan, a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Colorado, United States, developing countries are getting discouraged as more patents continue to be filed by the North, and that the concentration of patents in developed countries confirm fears of a growing 'nano-divide'.
He says the figures raise concerns that developing countries will be priced out of the field, deepening the health-related nano-divide set by prohibitive royalties and licensing fees.
"Organisations should make agreements when they file their patents that if the technology is used for non-profit purposes, such as for therapy in the developing world, then no licence fee is transferred," Mahajan said.
However, Mahajan says that patents are not a good way of judging the distribution of nanotechnology research, as the time between idea conception and patent registration can be two to three years.
The report highlights the need for international cooperation and dialogue. Maclurcan says China was notably absent from two "key" international meetings.
"There is a real need to progress international discussions concerning nanotechnology and the developing world from indentifying applications to the reality of issues such as developing a critical mass, the involvement of the private sector, novel environmental and health risks and ways of negotiating increasing patent concentration in the North," Maclurcan said.
Mahahjan agreed that the breakdown in discussions between China and the US is a cause for concern. "If countries like China and India do not open up their intellectual property to the rest of the world and participate in international meetings it will hinder our efforts at minimising the nano-divide," he told SciDev.Net.
Reference: AzoNano Online Journal of Nanotechnology 1, a0103 (2005)