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Nanotechnology and the South-South Divide

The latest issue of Science includes a couple of very interesting articles about the state of nanotechnology research in the developing world. Chunli Bai, executive vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, gives an overview of the growing importance of nanotech research in China, and its current emphasis on nanomaterial production; the article helps explain just how China has come to have the third largest nanoscience budget in the world. But it's "Small Things and Big Changes in the Developing World," by Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, that is the most striking.

Hassan argues that the pace and pattern of nanoscience and nanotech research in the developing world increasingly mirrors that in the North, and that there are good reasons to believe that significant breakthroughs could come from laboratories in the developing world. As noted, China spends a very large amount of money on nanotech research (perhaps as much as $600 million total between 2003 and 2007), and India, Brazil, South Africa and a variety of other less-developed nations are also funding nanoscience relatively well. Hassan argues that this reflects both a recognition of nanotechnology's potentially critical role in developmental leapfrogging and an embrace of the larger notion that science is a fundamental engine of development.

At the same time, this could hasten the onset of a "South-South" divide even greater than the "North-South" divide with which we're familiar:

First, having closer ties between scientists and technologists in the North and South increases the chances that the research and development agenda will be dictated by the North. Nanoscience and nanotechnology raise many intriguing questions from a research perspective. At the same time, they have many potentially valuable societal applications for poor people, including the creation of more efficient filtering systems for producing clean drinking water (through the creation of filters that prevent viruses and toxins from entering the water supply) and the provision of cheap and clean energy (through more efficient solar cells). But there remains the possibility that the majority of resources and expertise (in the North and South) may be applied to products and services that hold the most promising market potential in the North where the richest consumers live.

Such a South-South divide is an inevitable consequence of a world in which some developing nations adopt leapfrog technologies and practices, and others do not (whether by mistaken choice or by circumstance). The issue isn't whether the nano-leap countries will have a developmental improvement compared to the stragglers, but how that improvement is applied. That is, do the leapfrog nations work to meet the demands of the developed world consumer market, or do they use these technologies to improve the conditions for those in poverty, both within their own borders and in their region as a whole?

Hassan's position on this choice is clear:

To avoid this pitfall, governments throughout the developing world must focus on and support national policies that address critical social and environmental concerns in their own countries.

Specifically, the governments of those developing countries now investing heavily in nanotechnology should avoid "hitching" their research and development programs to those in the North. To prevent the creation of a South-South nanotechnology divide, such developing countries should devise broad-based strategies that include ample investments in South-South cooperation. In the long term, this could advance the use of these technologies worldwide and spur progress on many of the Millennium Development Goals.

We've argued here for quite a while that nanotechnology can and will play a big role in helping to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Last April, we linked to an article in PLoS Medicine showing precisely which of the MDGs would have the most to gain from nanotech research. The question isn't whether nanoscience will be of value to development, it's whether it will be applied in a way to benefit the greatest number of people.

Here's where the free/open source model takes on an even greater role. We've noted before that nanotechnology bears a closer resemblance to software development than industrial engineering; as with biotechnology, the free/open source concepts can be readily and successfully applied to work done in the realm of nanoscience. This does not mean that researchers in the developing world should turn their backs on the undoubtedly huge global market for commercial nano-goods; rather, researchers in both the developed and the leapfrog nations should be willing to contribute to open projects to expand the broader field of knowledge, and to make sure that those technologies of greatest use to people in need (even if not those with the greatest profit potential) are developed and distributed.

The Tropical Disease Initiative can be a model here: an open effort by biomedical specialists, often in the employ of commercial firms, to discover and deploy treatments for the kinds of diseases afflicting those regions least able to pay for cutting-edge pharmaceuticals.

As the leapfrog nations join the hyperdeveloped world in the nanotech age, we may well need to see a Developmental Nanotech Initiative as a guarantee that the benefits of this revolutionary technology are distributed as widely as possible.

Comments (2)

Adam Burke:

This underlines what a daft euphemism "South" is for "poor".

Warren Ogren:

If nonotechnology can in any way allievate the greatest problem this whole world is now facing,(that of overpopulation) that is the field in which most efforts should be concentrated. What good is progress in most other fields if the present, and projected increase in population continues to deplete our recources and trash this globe?

A better solution would be to eliminate the influence religion has over common sense.


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