Societal Impact of Nanotechnology - Potential Benefits and Risks For Developing Countries

Potential Benefits and Risks For Developing Countries

Nanotechnologies may provide new solutions for the millions of people in developing countries who lack access to basic services, such as safe water, reliable energy, health care, and education. The United Nations has set Millennium Development Goals for meeting these needs. The 2004 UN Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation noted that some of the advantages of nanotechnology include production using little labor, land, or maintenance, high productivity, low cost, and modest requirements for materials and energy.

Many developing countries, for example Costa Rica, Chile, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia, are investing considerable resources in research and development of nanotechnologies. Emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa are spending millions of US dollars annually on R&D, and are rapidly increasing their scientific output as demonstrated by their increasing numbers of publications in peer-reviewed scientific publications.

Potential opportunities of nanotechnologies to help address critical international development priorities include improved water purification systems, energy systems, medicine and pharmaceuticals, food production and nutrition, and information and communications technologies. Nanotechnologies are already incorporated in products that are on the market. Other nanotechnologies are still in the research phase, while others are concepts that are years or decades away from development.

Applying nanotechnologies in developing countries raises similar questions about the environmental, health, and societal risks described in the previous section. Additional challenges have been raised regarding the linkages between nanotechnology and development.

Protection of the environment, human health and worker safety in developing countries often suffers from a combination of factors that can include but are not limited to lack of robust environmental, human health, and worker safety regulations; poorly or unenforced regulation which is linked to a lack of physical (e.g., equipment) and human capacity (i.e., properly trained regulatory staff). Often, these nations require assistance, particularly financial assistance, to develop the scientific and institutional capacity to adequately assess and manage risks, including the necessary infrastructure such as laboratories and technology for detection.

Very little is known about the risks and broader impacts of nanotechnology. At a time of great uncertainty over the impacts of nanotechnology it will be challenging for governments, companies, civil society organizations, and the general public in developing countries, as in developed countries, to make decisions about the governance of nanotechnology.

Companies, and to a lesser extent governments and universities, are receiving patents on nanotechnology. The rapid increase in patenting of nanotechnology is illustrated by the fact that in the US, there were 500 nanotechnology patent applications in 1998 and 1,300 in 2000. Some patents are very broadly defined, which has raised concern among some groups that the rush to patent could slow innovation and drive up costs of products, thus reducing the potential for innovations that could benefit low income populations in developing countries.

There is a clear link between commodities and poverty. Many least developed countries are dependent on a few commodities for employment, government revenue, and export earnings. Many applications of nanotechnology are being developed that could impact global demand for specific commodities. For instance, certain nanoscale materials could enhance the strength and durability of rubber, which might eventually lead to a decrease in demand for natural rubber. Other nanotechnology applications may result in increases in demand for certain commodities. For example, demand for titanium may increase as a result of new uses for nanoscale titanium oxides, such as titanium dioxide nanotubes that can be used to produce and store hydrogen for use as fuel. Various organizations have called for international dialogue on mechanisms that will allow developing countries to anticipate and proactively adjust to these changes.

In 2003, Meridian Institute began the Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor: Opportunities and Risks (GDNP) to raise awareness of the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology for developing countries, close the gaps within and between sectors of society to catalyze actions that address specific opportunities and risks of nanotechnology for developing countries, and identify ways that science and technology can play an appropriate role in the development process. The GDNP has released several publicly accessible papers on nanotechnology and development, including "Nanotechnology and the Poor: Opportunities and Risks - Closing the Gaps Within and Between Sectors of Society"; "Nanotechnology, Water, and Development"; and "Overview and Comparison of Conventional and Nano-Based Water Treatment Technologies".

Read more about this topic:  Societal Impact Of Nanotechnology

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