Researchers have proposed a global initiative to accelerate research on nanotechnologies that would benefit poor countries and help to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
In a paper published today (12 April) in PLoS Medicine, the team from the Joint Centre for Bioethics at Canada's University of Toronto says the initiative would provide guidance, identify research priorities and stimulate funding to promote responsible use of nanotechnology to meet the needs of the world's poor.
Nanotechnology is the study and creation of tiny products, on the scale of atoms. So far, most research in the field has focused on high-tech applications in rich nations.
The proposal is modelled on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health, which seeks to identify and focus attention on scientific and technological solutions to diseases affecting the developing world.
The grand challenge approach "directs investigators to seek a specific scientific or technological breakthrough that would overcome obstacles to solving significant development problems," says co-author Abdallah Daar.
"The top ten nanotechnology applications identified in our current study are a good starting point for defining these grand challenges," says Daar.
At the top of the list are cheaper, cleaner ways of producing and storing energy, boosting agricultural productivity, producing clean water and diagnosing diseases.
The team related its top ten to the UN Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets for international development that members of the United Nations have pledged to reach by 2015.
They say eight of ten could help meet the goals of reducing child mortality and improving maternal health.
Five of the ten could help ensure environmental sustainability, and three could help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger and help combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, they add.
The researchers suggest their results could help developing countries choose areas to focus their nanotechnology initiatives on.
At an international meeting held in Italy in February, delegates discussed the merits of determining, on a global scale, what fields of nanotechnology should be prioritised to accelerate such nations' development (see Nanotech revolution needs business know-how and Developing world 'needs nanotech network').
Several participants, including delegates from developing countries, said such priorities should be made locally, rather than set internationally.
To choose its 'top ten nanotechnologies for development', Singer's team asked 63 "experts" — including 38 from developing nations — which nanotechnology applications were most likely to benefit developing countries in the next ten years.
PLoS Medicine 2, 300 (2005)
Read more about nanotechnology in SciDev.Net's Nanotechnology quick guide.