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  • Developing nations 'must wise up to nanotechnology'

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[LONDON] Decision makers in developing countries need more information about the potential impact of nanotechnology on their economies and livelihoods.

This was the warning given to a conference in London yesterday that celebrated the 30th anniversary of economist E.F. Schumacher's influential book Small is Beautiful, which argued that inappropriate technologies were failing the developing world.

Pat Mooney, head of the Canada-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) warned that emerging field of nanotechnology – technology and engineering at the level of atoms and molecules – could damage developing countries' export markets and agricultural systems.

He said that nanotechnology would allow the industralised world to create limitless supplies of products – such as metals and textiles – without relying on traditional raw materials, many of which are currently sourced in developing countries. This has "enormous implications" for manufacturing industries in poor nations, he said.

But Mark Welland, a nanotechnologist from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, urged against generating 'hype' over the possible effects of nanotechnology, both positive and negative. "We have to be realistic and not expect too much," he said.

He also argued that nanotechnology – a term coined in the 1990s to group a number of different techniques carried out at the 'nanoscale' – is not in fact a new or unique discipline. "Nanotechnology is one step on the path that technology has been moving along for centuries," he said. "Indeed, chemists would argue that they have been doing nanotechnology for many years."

Such techniques could have beneficial effects for people all over the world, he said. These include producing new materials with vastly reduced environmental impact, more cost-effective manufacturing, and speedy diagnosis of disease long before any symptoms appear. But he stressed that research was still at an early stage.

The US National Science Foundation predicts that nanotechnology has the potential to become a US$1 trillion global market by 2015. It also estimates that half of the world's pharmaceutical industry will be based on the use of nanoscale technologies by 2010.

But Mooney warned that the technology was advancing too fast for regulatory structures to keep up. "We're faced with the biggest technological wave the world has ever seen," he said. "Every wave has a crest and a trough. While the rich ride the crest the poor ride the trough. In every case, the poor lose out, not just relatively but in real terms."

He called for the creation of an international convention for the management of new technologies. "We need a system that allows all countries, especially developing countries, to evaluate new technologies," he said.

Welland agreed that researchers would welcome a system that enabled more informed analysis of longer-term implications surrounding new technologies. "From a scientist's perspective… [this] would make our lives easier," he said.

Andrew Scott, policy and programmes director at the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), which organised the conference, told SciDev.Net that there are concerns that developing countries with a good science base – such as India, China and Brazil – might invest in nanotechnology to the detriment of other more pressing domestic needs.

According to Welland – who is on a working group commissioned by the UK government to carry out an independent study of nanoscience – the developing world does not necessarily have anything to fear from this new technology. He told SciDev.Net, for example, that scientists are working on developing a pocket-sized "miniature drug factory", which could produce a multitude of different drugs as required. This could theoretically end the control of large companies over manufacturing, he said.

But ultimately, he argued, "any technology can be used for good and for bad". Nanotechnology has given scientists the "ultimate tool to design matter optimally to get the right properties and the right environmental impact," he said. "Now that we've got all the tools, it's up to humans to use them effectively."

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