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Leading nanotechnology research institutes in developing countries should be encouraged to form a collaborative network, according to Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS).

Speaking yesterday (10 February) at a conference in Trieste, Italy — called North-South Dialogue on Nanotechnology: Challenges and Opportunities — Hassan added that Africa should be helped to develop its first regional centre of excellence in the field.

The conference, hosted by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), has brought together international experts in nanotechnology — the study and manipulation of materials at the atomic scale — to discuss the challenges and opportunities the field presents for developing countries.

Describing his hopes for what the conference could achieve, Hassan said his proposed network of leading research and training centres in nanotechnology throughout the developing world could offer fellowships to young scientists.

"There is an urgent need to determine how to assist [developing] countries to develop their capacity in this field," said Hassan.

Terry Turney, director of nanotechnology activities at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), co-chairs an asian forum on nanotechnology which promotes the exchange of information among researchers in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the movement of researchers themselves.

Turney told SciDev.Net that the forum is considering creating a 'nanotechnology dating service' that would bring together researchers and companies in developed and developing nations.

In contrast to Asia, Africa lags behind in nanotechnology research and development, said Hassan.

South Africa leads the field on the continent. According to its national strategy, from 2005 onwards it will dedicate US$5 million to US$10 million each year to nanotechnology research and development.

In comparison, said Hassan, 2003 figures estimate that China spends US$175 million each year, with a 200 per cent growth rate. And the Brazilian government's 2004 budget for nanotechnology was US$7 million.

Part of the problem is the political instability of many African states, suggested Mike Treder of the US-based Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.

Hassan agreed, adding that although several African governments pour money into science and technology, the brain drain draws their trained researchers out of the region. As a result, they effectively support research and development elsewhere.

Hassan proposed that TWAS and UNIDO's International Centre for Science and High Technology should help choose and upgrade a nanotechnology research centre in Africa, with the aim of creating a centre of research excellence.

Such a centre could help stem the brain drain and create a concentration of nanotechnology expertise in the region.

Nanotechnology has the potential to help solve some of the biggest development challenges through applications including faster and more precise drug delivery systems, cheaper and more efficient solar panels, and effective water filters.

The Trieste meeting highlighted the possible benefits of nanotechnology in the developing world, but participants also acknowledged that risks must also be taken into account when promoting the field.

Mihail Roco, senior advisor at the US National Science Foundation, noted that "there is no regulation or restriction anywhere in the world" to ensure responsible development in nanotechnology.

Read more about nanotechnology in SciDev.Net's quick guide to nanotechnology

Mohamed Hassan is on SciDev.Net's board of trustees.