Developing countries are unlikely to be left behind industrialised nations in nanotechnology research but will probably lag in creating relevant regulations, which could pose safety risks.
These are among the conclusions of a report that UNESCO released last week (28 July) on future ethical, legal and political issues surrounding nanotechnology.
Science and technology consultant John Daly says there is an urgent need for scientists to explore the potential hazards of nanotechnology, because materials at the nanoscale behave differently to how they do in bulk.
"Where the effects of the nanomaterials are dangerous, regulation may be appropriate. But we don't have a very good understanding of where those dangers lie," he told SciDev.Net.
The report says international organisations can help develop global standards for using and assessing nanotechnologies, as well as encouraging their adoption in developing nations such as Brazil, China, India, and Iran.
It warns that poor countries could lack access to the reliable scientific information needed to minimise risks.
Fabio Salamanca-Buentello of the University of Toronto, Canada, and a consultant to UNESCO on ethics and nanotechnology, says global regulatory frameworks should include strategies for engaging the public.
He says discussions should cover the control of nanotechnology applications, potential risks and benefits, and who should take responsibility for any problems that arise.
The report says developing countries such as Brazil, China and India have gained standing in nanotechnology research over the past 15 years because the Internet has improved access to scientific papers. International collaboration and communication has also increased.
The report warns that access to information about nanotechnology may be less equal within nations than between them. "Communication between the experts and elites of a nation and the poorer and less well educated has grown less common, and the incentives to do so have dwindled," it says.
It calls for scientists and the international community to find ways of ending the 'knowledge gap' within their own countries, as well as between nations.
Link to full report, The Ethics and Politics of Nanotechnology