Helping the poor: the real challenge of nanotech

Copyright: Chris Ewels

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Those concerned about the potential side effects of nanotechnology should spend more time worrying about ways of ensuring that it meets the needs of the poor.

One legitimate concern about the role of science and technology in promoting development is that too often in the past, new technologies have been introduced with inadequate attention to their potential damaging consequences. Think, for example, of the way that rivers across the developing world have become irreversibly polluted by industrial effluent, or the widespread health and environmental damage caused by the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides.


But there is also the danger that, if such concerns are taken too far, they could block the development of technological innovations that offer a genuine opportunity — even taking their potential threats and limitations into account — to substantially increase the health and well-being of those across the developing world. Such is the case with nanotechnology, the manipulation of atoms and molecules to create new materials and processes at the ‘nanoscale’.

The current debate around nanotechnology is all too frequently polarised into two opposing camps. On the one hand are those scientists, engineers and investors who are keen to promote the field as a source of new products and processes, promising that these will lead to changes as revolutionary as those triggered by the explosion of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in recent decades. On the other are environmentalist critics and others who warn that the potential health and environmental hazards of nanotechnology remain unknown — some even demanding a moratorium on new developments in the area.

Too often, such a one-dimensional debate between proponents and opponents of a new technology deflects attention from a third issue: what steps can be taken to ensure that the technology develops in a way that lets it meet its full potential to address the needs of the poor across the world. The issue is not specific to nanotechnology; those involved in any market-driven innovation will inevitably be drawn to regions and markets where profits are likely to be highest, which tends to be rich countries (or rich groups within poor countries).

But the promise of nanotechnology — for example, in offering relatively cheap diagnostic or water filtration techniques — highlights the dilemma in a particularly stark way. Its very novelty opens an opportunity for creative and imaginative approaches to an issue at the heart of the technology and development debate: how can the innovation agenda be effectively shaped to meet the needs of the poorest sectors of society?

Industrial involvement

The issues have been highlighted by a meeting organised two weeks ago in Trieste, Italy, by the International Centre for Science and Technology of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (ICS-UNIDO). The meeting, which focussed on the role of nanotechnology in developing countries, heard details of the rapidly growing investment in the field in developing countries ­— which is set to grow faster than in their industrialised counterparts — as well as some suggestions about how these trends might be encouraged (see Developing world ‘needs nanotech network’).

Indeed, not only have the more scientifically advanced developing countries — such as China and India — already demonstrated the ability to become leading players in the global nanotechnology efforts, but even smaller countries, such as Malaysia and Mexico, are expressing an interest in joining them, on the promise that building expertise in nanotechnology will provide them with an entry ticket to the global knowledge economy.


A number of speakers explained that one reason that developing countries need to develop their own scientific and technological capacity in this field is to ensure that nanotechnology does not become yet another area in which they become dependent on technology licensed from the North. South African representatives, for example, were particularly insistent that solutions need to come from within.

Furthermore, much of the Trieste meeting was, rightly, concerned with the need to ensure that capacity building efforts are accompanied by equal efforts to build an entrepreneurial infrastructure so that successful research is translated into successful products (see Nanotech revolution need business know-how). Too often, as many speakers stressed, both national and international support for research pays insufficient attention to the need to support the environment in which innovation takes place (which includes encouraging the emergence of small novel enterprises through which most of the applications are likely to take place).

But it is also essential that this demand-creating environment be interpreted broadly, to ensure that investments in nanotechnology are made not only for economic but also social benefit. Investment in nanotechnology as an entry ticket to the global economy will inevitably tend to focus, at least if left to the market place, on those areas in which the potential financial return is high. But this creates the risk that other areas, where the main benefit will be in the social return, are placed much lower down the priority list.

Ensuring the social benefit

One of the key needs is to ensure that mechanisms are developed by which local needs can be inserted into the nanotech research and development agenda. Efforts to focus research on regionally relevant applications such as water filtration have a double benefit. Firstly, this will (hopefully) deliver useful products; secondly, the visibility of these products will provide public endorsement of the funding of the research that went into them.

In one sense, of course, it could be argued that it may not matter where the technology is developed, or by whom. If researchers in a country such as Australia, for example, are best suited to develop water filters, then pumping money into such projects in a country where the research infrastructure is weak runs the inevitable risk of duplicating efforts.

But this misses the point that building a research agenda within the developing countries around local need is an essential part of building legitimacy for investment in science and technology. Furthermore, it is more likely to ensure that the technologies that emerge are compatible with local social practices and cultural traditions; neither of these is likely to figure prominently on the agendas of foreign research laboratories.

Many of the issues generated by public debate about nanotechnology and sustainable development have been highlighted in a recent report about nanotechnology produced by the US-based Meridian Institute. The report is being used to launch a ‘global dialogue’ around the issues it raises, an essential step in ensuring full public participation in debates about the directions that research and development in nanoscience and nanotechnology should take (see Can tiny science bring big solutions to world’s poor?).

We encourage those who are concerned about these issues to express their views (and hear the views of others). It is obviously essential that the wider debate about nanotechnology give full expression to concerns about the potential health and other hazards that could arise from it, as well as the regulatory mechanisms that are needed to prevent them. But it is equally essential to ensure that the public’s voice is directly engaged in the process of setting the nanotechnology research agenda. That is where the biggest opportunity to avoid a damaging ‘nano-divide’ really exists.

Read more about nanotechnology in SciDev.Net’s Nanotechnology quick guide.