Science of the small could create big ‘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, according to a recent report from two United Kingdom (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 that 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), 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. — SciDev.Net

The full report is available online at the Science and Development Network website www.scidev.net

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Small-arms conference ends without agreement

The United Nations world conference on small arms has collapsed without agreement -- despite the majority of governments, including the European Union and many African and Latin American governments, backing tougher controls on the international trade in small arms and light weapons, Oxfam Great Britain said on Monday.

Heaven or hell for the Sahel?

The semi-arid Sahel stretches across Africa just south of the Sahara. The region suffered severe drought during the second half of the 20th century, but there is disagreement between scientists on the reasons for the decline in rainfall -- and on the Sahel's future prospects of increased rainfall.

Consortium identifies HIV vaccine obstacles

A powerful international consortium set up to accelerate research into a vaccine against HIV/Aids has identified major barriers to the first generation of commercially available HIV vaccines -- and ways to overcome these obstacles, says a Science and Development Network report.
Advertising

Treasury presents Covid-19 corruption action plan

Reports of corruption, over-pricing and the delivery of sub-standard PPE have become the norm over the past five months as the country grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic

Metro cops, SAPS clash over control

Tensions between the City of Cape Town and the police service over responsibilities mirrors the strain between national and local government
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday