Jan 28, 2004
Will Prince Charles et al diminish the opportunities of developing countries in nanotechnology?
Prince Charles1 and the ETC Group2 (formerly RAFI) have expressed opposition to nanotechnology in recent months, making this seem like a replay of the genetically-modified (GM) foods debate. That debate essentially ignored the voices of people in developing countries3. Commentators from industrialized countries are now focusing primarily on nanotechnology risks rather than its potential benefits. While there are legitimate risks that need to be managed, we argue that an exclusive focus on the risks will create another divide, the “nano-divide” – similar to the digital and genomics divides4 – between industrialized and developing countries. We have already called attention to the gap between the science and the ethics of nanotechnology5, citing global equity as a key area in which the ethics of nanotechnology must catch up to the science in order for the technology to progress in a socially responsible manner. Here, we show that there is a failure adequately to consider and understand how nanotechnology can bring benefits to the 5 bn people in developing countries. Our survey of select developing countries indicates varying levels of nanotechnology activity that can be categorized as “front runner”, “middle ground” and “up and comer”. We argue that the significant nanotechnology activity in developing countries may be derailed by a debate that fails to take adequate account of developing country perspectives6.
Nanotechnology for health and the environment in the developing world
Nanotechnology offers a range of potential benefits for developing countries. Nanometre-sized quantum dots can be used to tag biological molecules for the identification of proteins that indicate disease status7 without many of the drawbacks associated with conventional organic dyes used to mark cells8. Quantum dots could eventually be used in clinical diagnostic tests to quickly detect molecules associated with cancer cells and HIV/AIDS. This has great relevance to developing countries, where over 95% of new HIV infections occurred in 20029. Quantum dot optical biosensors can be used for the detection of TB10, which along with HIV and Malaria is responsible for half of infectious disease mortality in developing countries11. In India, the Central Scientific Instruments Organization has recently announced plans for the development of a prototype nanotechnology-based TB diagnostic kit which would reduce the cost and time required for TB tests and also use a smaller amount of blood for testing12. Further, quantum dots and other nanomaterials could be integrated with microtechnology to develop inexpensive miniaturized devices for medical diagnostics. The size of these devices would allow them to be easily used in remote regions. Vaccinations that have greatly reduced child mortality in developing countries13 could be administered in a more controlled and targeted manner using nanoparticle delivery systems14, 15. Two US-patented nanoparticle drug delivery systems16, 17 developed by researchers at the University of Delhi have already been transferred to Indian industry for commercialization. Nanotechnology-based bone scaffolds have the ability to repair damaged skeletal tissue caused by injury resulting from road traffic accidents, the so-called “unseen epidemic” 18 of developing countries. In China, a recently developed nanotechnology bone scaffold has been tested in 26 hospital patients19. Enzyme biosensors can be used to monitor soil and crop toxicity levels to improve agricultural quality control in developing countries20. Water purification technologies have been recognized as one of several key nanotechnology applications for developing countries21. The University of Brazil is currently conducting research on nanomagnets that would be attracted to oil to aid the clean-up of large oil spills. Many of these activities, of course, also hold promise for economic development.
Address legitimate risks
Technology is a critical tool for development22 and nanotechnology can address needs in areas of health, environment and economy. While overly apprehensive views and fear-mongering can prohibit serious progress, addressing the legitimate concerns associated with nanotechnology can foster public support and allow the technology to progress in a socially responsible manner. The Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University is exploring the unknown effects of nanomaterials on the environment. Their research addresses questions that include: How long will nanomaterials remain in the environment? How readily do nanomaterials bind to environmental contaminants? Will these particles move up through the food chain and what will be their effect on humans? Other nanotechnology concerns that have been raised by Greenpeace23 include: How will the incorporation of artificial materials into human systems affect health, security and privacy? Who will control the means of production and who will get to debate the risks and benefits? What will be the effects of military and corporate control over nanotechnology?
There are also potential risk management issues specific to developing countries: displacement of traditional markets, the imposition of foreign values, the fear that technological advances will be extraneous to development needs, and the lack of resources to establish, monitor and enforce safety regulations. Addressing these challenges will require active participation on the part of developing countries.
Perhaps the major risk for developing countries, however, is a widening “nano-divide”: Will industrialized nations continue to invest in stain-resistant “nano” pants, nanotechnology-based cosmetics and other products solely for the rich, or will nanotechnology’s potential to improve lives in the developing world be seized?
Will the nanotechnology debate resemble GM crops or ICT?
It is instructive for nanotechnology to reflect on the debates surrounding GM crops technology and information and communications technology (ICT) to address the needs of developing countries. Nanotechnology has the potential to shrink the gap between rich and poor nations by addressing issues specific to development. However, the emerging tendency to raise fears about nanotechnology before there is much scientific evidence has the potential to stall progress in less advanced nations if only the interests of the wealthy – and not the distinct needs of the poor – are allowed to dominate discussion and influence decision-making.
In the clash between scientists and activists in Europe and North America over GM crops, debate centred on the risks posed to developed nations, and relatively little attention was paid to the potential benefits for developing nations. Political pressure from wealthy countries, such as the threat of banning agricultural imports from countries that use GM crop technologies, effectively excluded the poor from participating in GM technology. As Paarlberg24 notes, “the most important barrier to getting GM seeds into the hands of farmers in poor countries is now the consumer policy and resistance toward GM foods that has become pervasive in wealthy countries that import food and animal feed”. Zambia’s initial refusal of US GM corn as humanitarian food relief in 2002 was attributed in part to economic fears of no longer being considered a GM-free nation by the European Union (EU)25. Nigeria’s former Minister of Agricultural and Rural Development Hassan Adamu spoke of the pitfalls of neglecting the needs of the poor in the development of technology, particularly agricultural biotechnology: “It is wrong and dangerous for a privileged people to presume that they know what is best for everyone. And when this happens, it cannot come as a shock that those who are imposed upon often see this attitude as colonialist.”26
While the acrimonious debates around GM crops continue, ICT is demonstrating how developing countries can benefit from emerging technologies. ICT has obvious potential health, economic and educational benefits for developing countries. In 2000, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan launched the Health Internetwork to promote access to health information via the Internet in resource-poor countries27. The Health Internetwork is now led by the World Health Organization with major pilot projects in India, Africa and Central Asia. The Chennai-based M S Swaminathan Research Foundation has created the Information Village Project28 to deliver ICT to rural communities in southern India. Partly funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the project involves local volunteers and places particular emphasis on empowering rural women. Software technology parks have helped India’s software exports to grow to an estimated US $7.8 bn29. In South East Asia, Internet-based e-Farmers30 has provided practical online education on crop production and strengthened agricultural markets through Internet trade. Telemedicine has allowed the isolated African community of Ginnack to diagnose hospital patient symptoms through inexpensive digital image analysis31. While numerous obstacles to overcoming the digital divide still exist, ICT is recognized as a tool for development and poor countries have been able to play a significant role in its advances.
Calls for a moratorium on the new production of nanomaterials32 threaten to disadvantage developing nations. Wealthy countries have the resources to continue to invest in nanotechnology despite a moratorium on public funding - as is the case with restrictions on stem cell research in the US. They also have great incentive to invest in nanotechnology, as they will reap great economic rewards when a ban is lifted and they are technologically far ahead of other countries. Frequently, activist groups call for a moratorium not because they hope to achieve a ban, but because they wish to draw attention to their cause. Even if a moratorium is not achieved with nanotechnology, the attention it receives can result in a negative public opinion towards nanotechnology. Thus, amidst mounting opposition to nanotechnology in the developed countries, a concerted effort is required not to neglect poorly represented developing countries and to consider how nanotechnology can be harnessed to benefit the majority of the world’s population. Is it reasonable for five bn people to export only bananas and tee-shirts while a small group of countries continues to get richer? At a recent workshop session on innovation systems 33, one of the participants from the Eastern Mediterranean region pointed out that the focus is always on “technology transfer”, not “science transfer”. Those in poor countries should be allowed to emulate the science and technology development model that allowed industrialized nations to become wealthy in the first place.
Developing countries moving ahead
Given the many ways developing countries might benefit from nanotechnology, we surveyed nanotechnology research in developing countries. A number of methods were used to collect data during the period from June to September 2003. Internet searches using keywords such as “nanotechnology” and “nanoscience” were performed to identify developing countries with nanotechnology activity. Documents from government agencies outlining the planning or implementation of funding programmes were searched for occurrences of the string “nano”. Patent searches in American, Korean and Indian databases were conducted for select applicants in developing countries who had many published papers on their nanotechnology research. Personal communication with approximately 30 government officials, academic researchers and industry representatives in developing countries provided further information on contacts and nanotechnology activity in the country. Academic researchers from developed countries who had attended nanotechnology conferences in developing countries were also contacted to provide information on developing world researchers. Once data were collated, categories were devised based on the degree of government support for nanotechnology, and whether or not this support included a formal government funding programme, as well as on the level of industry involvement and the amount of Internet accessible nanotechnology research from academic institutions and research groups. The information obtained provides a good overview of the general level of nanotechnology activity in select developing countries, although greater detail would be provided by individual case studies of developing countries. Nonetheless, our research revealed a surprising amount of nanotechnology activity, and we clustered the developing countries into three groups – front runners, middle ground, and up and comers (see Table 1).
There are also promising examples of North–South partnerships. For instance, the EU has allocated 285 m Euros through its 6th Framework Programme (FP6) for scientific and technological co-operation with third partner countries, including Argentina, Chile, China, India and South Africa. A priority research area under FP6 is nanotechnology and nanosciences. Another example is the US funding of nanotechnology research in Vietnam, as well as the US-Vietnam Joint Committee for Science & Technology Cooperation35. These kinds of useful and forward-looking initiatives can easily be derailed by unbalanced calls for moratoria against nanotechnology.
The way forward
The evolution of nanotechnology, particularly in relation to developing countries, can benefit from the lessons learned from previous technologies. The aim should be to encourage public discourse and consider potential benefits for the developing world. For instance, in considering the challenge of harnessing genomics and biotechnology to improve health in developing countries, we realized that a multi-faceted approach is needed36. Foresight studies can produce awareness of potential benefits, say of biotechnologies, for developing countries37. Analyses using the framework of global public goods provide justification for collective action and the mobilization of resources from the developed world to address developmental needs in poorer countries38. Regional courses and workshops which bring together scientists, politicians, journalists, lawyers and NGOs provide valuable information that informs policy-making in addition to creating valuable opinion leader networks39. Case studies of the innovation systems of successful countries can provide useful lessons and good practices for other developing countries. Harnessing the best scientific minds in the world to address global challenges, as is being done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health40, is one way for the international community to begin to make a real difference.
But most fundamentally, the challenge here is the global governance of science and technology41, 42. There is at the moment no global focal point to commission and collect research results, promote awareness of the potential applications of nanotechnology for development, create new regulatory regimes (or build upon existing ones) for managing nanotechnology’s associated risks and promoting global public goods, provide a platform for constructive dialogue among all stakeholders – including representatives from government, industry, academe and citizens groups – and engage the voices of people in developing countries. For this reason, as a practical step we propose the formation of an international network on the assessment of emerging technologies for development. This network should include groups who will explore both the potential risks and benefits of nanotechnology, incorporating both developed and developing world perspectives, and explore the effects of a potential “nano–divide”. The aim of the network would be to facilitate a more informed policy debate and advocate for the interests of those in developing countries.
Although nanotechnology is just in its infancy, now is the ideal time to explore its use for development. Opposition from Prince Charles, ETC Group and others in North America and Europe should not be permitted to diminish the health, environmental and economic opportunities of the poor in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
We are grateful to Warren Chan, Paul Dufour, Deepa Persad, Fabio Salamanca-Buentello and Halla Thorsteinsdóttir for comments.
Grant Support: The Program in Applied Ethics and Biotechnology (supported by Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund, Sun Life Financial, Merck and Co, GlaxoSmithKline, University of Toronto, The Hospital for Sick Children, Mount Sinai Hospital, Sunnybrook and Womens’ Health Sciences Center, the University Health Network and the McLaughlin Centre for Molecular Medicine) and The Canadian Program on Genomics and Global Health (supported by Genome Canada and International Development Research Centre). PAS is supported by a Distinguished Investigator award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. EC and EM were supported by an Institute of Medical Sciences Summer Student award. The University of Toronto Joint Center for Bioethics is a Pan-American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Bioethics.
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About the author
Erin Court1, Abdallah S. Daar1,2, Elizabeth Martin1, Tara Acharya1, Peter A. Singer 1,3 1University of Toronto Joint Center for Bioethics, Canada; 2McLaughlin Centre for Molecular Medicine and Departments of Public Health Sciences and Surgery, University of Toronto; and 3Department of Medicine, University of Toronto, Canada