Nanotechnology and the developing world

On Wednesday, I spent the day in London, at the headquarters of the think-tank Demos, who were running a workshop on applications of nanotechnology in the developing world. Present were other nano-scientists, people from development NGOs like Practical Action and WaterAid, and industry representatives. I was the last speaker, so I was able to reflect some of the comments from the day’s discussion in my own talk. This, more or less, is what I said:

When people talk about nanotechnology and the developing world, what we generally hear is one of two contrasting views – “nanotechnology can save the developing world” or “nanotechnology will make rich/poor gap worse”. We need to move beyond this crude counterpoint.

The areas in which nanotechnology has the potential to help the developing world are now fairly well rehearsed. Here’s a typical list –
• Cheap solar power
• Solutions for clean water
• Inexpensive diagnostics
• Drug release
• Active ingredient release – pesticides for control of disease vectors

What these have in common is that in each case you could see in principle that they might make a difference, but it isn’t obvious that they will. Not least of the reasons for this uncertainty is because we know that many existing technological solutions to obvious and pressing problems, many much more simple and widely available than these promised nanotechnology solutions, haven’t been implemented yet. This is not to say that we don’t need new technology – clearly, on a global scale, we very much do. Throughout the world we are existentially dependent on technology, but the technology we have is not sustainable and must be superceded. Arguably, though, this is more a problem for rich countries.

Amongst the obvious barriers, there is profound ignorance in the scientific/technical communities of the real problems of the developing world, and of the practical realities that can make it hard to implement technological solutions. This was very eloquently expressed by Mark Welland, the director of the Cambridge Nanoscience Centre, who has recently been spending a lot of time working with communities and scientists in Egypt and other middle eastern countries. There are fundamental difficulties in implementing solutions in a market-driven environment. Currently we rely on the market – perhaps with some intervention, by governments, NGOs or foundations, of greater or lesser efficacy – to take developments from the lab into useful products. To put it bluntly, there is a problem in designing a business model for a product whose market consists of people who haven’t got much money, and one of the industry representatives described a technically excellent product whose implementation has been stranded for just this reason.

Ways of getting round this problem include the kind of subsidies and direct market interventions now being tried for the distribution of the new (and expensive) artemisinin-based combination therapies for malaria (see this article in the Economist). The alternative is to put one’s trust in the process of trickle-down innovation, as Jeremy Baumberg called it; this is the hope that technologies developed for rich-country problems might find applications in the developing world. For example, controlled pesticide release technologies marketed to protect Florida homes from termites might find applications in controlling mosquitos, or water purification technology developed for the US military might be transferred to poor communities in arid areas.

Another challenge is the level of locally available knowlege and capacity to exploit technology in developing countries. One must ensure that technology is robust, scalable and can be maintained with local resources. Mark Welland reminds us that generating local solutions with local manpower, aside from its other benefits, helps build educational capacity in those countries.

On the negative side of the ledger, people point to problems like:
• The further lock-down of innovation through aggressive intellectual property regimes,
• The possibility of environmental degradation due to dumping of toxic nanoparticles
• Problems for developing countries depending on commodities from commodity substitution as a result of new technologies.

These are all issues worth considering, but they aren’t really specific to nanotechnology, but are more general consequences of the way new technology is developed and applied. It’s worth making a few more general comments about the cultures of science and technology.

It needs to be stressed first that science is a global enterprise, and it is a trans-national culture that is not very susceptible to central steering. We’re in an interesting time now, with the growth of new science powers: China and India have received the most headlines, but shouldn’t neglect other countries like Brazil and South Africa that are consciously emphasising nanotechnology as they develop their science base. Will these countries focus their science efforts on the needs of industrialisation and their own growing middle classes, or does their experience put them in a better position to propose realistic solutions to development problems? Meanwhile, in more developed countries like the UK, it is hard to overstate the emphasis the current political climate puts on getting science to market. The old idea of pure science leading naturally to applied science that then feeding into wealth-creating technology – the “linear model” – is out of favour both politically and intellectually, and we see an environment in which the idea of “goal-oriented” science is exalted. In the UK this has been construed in a very market focused way – how can we generate wealth by generating new products? “Users” of research – primarily industry, with some representation from government departments, particularly those in the health and defense sectors, have an increasingly influential voice in setting science policy. One could ask, who represents the potential “users” of research in the developing world?

One positive message is that there is a lot of idealism amongst scientists, young and old, and this idealism is often a major driving force for people taking up a scientific career. The current climate, in which the role of science in underpinning wealth creation is emphasised above all else, isn’t necessarily very compatible with idealism. There is a case for more emphasis on the technology that delivers what people need, as well as what the market wants. In practical terms, many scientists might wish to spend time on work that benefits the developing world, but career pressures and institutional structures make this difficult. So how can we harness the idealism that motivates many scientists, while tempering it with realism about the institutional structures that they live in and understanding the special characteristics that make scientists good at their job?

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