Bringing science and development together through news and analysis

  • Science of the small could create 'nano-divide'

Nanotechnology — or the technology of very small particles — offers potential opportunities and benefits to developing nations in the long run, but the threat of a 'nano-divide' in the short-term, says a report published on Thursday (29 July) by two UK bodies, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The report was commissioned by the UK government last year to assess the current state and future direction of nanotechnology, weigh the potential risks and benefits, and establish whether there is a need for a regulatory framework specifically designed to address these risks and benefits. It concludes that health threats of nanotechnology are currently restricted to certain workplaces including some academic laboratories, but there is virtually no evidence to allow an evaluation of its environmental threats.

In the long-term, says the report, nanotechnology could generate benefits for global society, such as cheap sustainable energy and better methods for disease diagnosis and treatment. But there is a risk that different capabilities to develop and exploit new technologies will increase the divide between rich and poor nations in the more immediate future. Indeed, the high cost of developing new procedures and a skilled workforce would put poorer nations at a definite disadvantage.

Richard Jones, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sheffield, UK, says the report showed a surprising consensus between the scientists and environmentalists on the absence of short-term threats posed by nanotechnology to human health.

"Debate now needs to move on to some bigger, longer term, questions," he said. "How can we use nanotechnology to overcome the world's pressing environmental and health problems while staying alert for the new ethical issues that such a powerful technology will potentially raise?"

The Canadian action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC group), however, was more critical. "The report is undeniably impressive and constructive," says Jim Thomas, an ETC group project manager. "It raises all the right questions, even though some of its answers are incomplete and uneven."

"There is no discussion of… the implications of nanotech for the global South," says Thomas "And despite the UK's colossal controversy over agricultural biotechnology, the report fails to examine the impacts of nanotech on agriculture and food production."

As part of its research, the committee of investigators held workshops with a variety of UK and international stakeholders. Among the concerns expressed during these sessions were nanotechnology's potential social impacts.

In addition, the report notes that enthusiasm for creating a "technical fix" for development issues could divert the attention from more sustainable, less expensive 'low-tech' solutions.

Finally, the report makes note of intellectual property concerns. Broad patents, for example on processes for manipulating or creating materials, would "stifle creativity" and establish barriers for entry into the nanotechnology industry for everyone, including researchers in the developing world.

Patent offices, says the report, must keep a close eye on the rapid scientific developments in nanotechnology and must grant patents that encourage, not limit, innovation.

Thomas considers the report's findings on intellectual property insufficient. "While acknowledging the issues of ownership and control as fundamental it fails to adequately address them," he says. "There is no discussion of nanotech monopolies."

The report underlines the potential benefits of nanotechnology for the developing world. According to Doug Parr of Greenpeace, who submitted evidence to the committee, and the Joint Centre of Bioethics, these include improving renewable energy technology, cheaper, faster disease detection, and improved water purification technologies.

In conclusion, the report says that establishing a balance between the risks and benefits of nanotechnology research for developing nations raises two fundamental questions: "Can the futures trajectories of nanotechnologies be steered toward wider social or environmental goals?" and "If a 'nano-divide' develops, what can governments do about it?"

Future regulation of the industry must carefully consider these two questions, says the report.

Link to full report Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties.