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Nanotechnology, Poverty, and Disparity

A Foresight Nanotech Institute Policy Issues Brief

by Jacob Heller and Christine Peterson

Nanotechnology has the potential to dramatically improve the position of the world’s poorest people. Nanotech inventions can help fight tropical disease, produce an abundance of food, provide for cleaner water, make the transport of goods easier and cheaper to people in remote areas, and provide clean and cheap energy sources. However, whether these inventions will be made in a timely fashion, and costs lowered enough for the poor to benefit soon, is questionable. History with other technologies suggests that nanotechnologies may be greatly delayed in reaching the poor, widening the gap between rich and poor.

Besides the obvious humanitarian goal of aiding those in the poorer nations, there is a very practical reason for addressing this issue: countries which are left behind are vulnerable to destabilizing economic pressures from more advanced nations, and may even be at greater risk of military invasions directed at their natural resources. To avoid encouraging such aggression, we can attempt to assist those who are worse off.

Ensuring that nanotech benefits humanity, rich and poor alike, is a matter of policy. Deliberate and early action can be taken by governments and non-governmental organizations to increase the odds that the benefits to nanotechnology are widespread, and don’t needlessly exacerbate already large disparities between the developed and developing worlds.

Nanotechnology has been singled out for its unique potential to alleviate the suffering of the poor in the developed and developing worlds. In the long-run, productive nanosystems will likely enable cheaper and more efficient production processes which may lower the price of all goods. Historically, technology has been the driving force behind economic development and progress; different rates of technological progress largely explain the disparity in incomes and quality of life between the developed and developing world.1 Nanotechnology, if opened up to the developing world, could have profoundly positive effects on these countries’ potential for growth.

Fortunately, the developing world has been relatively involved in nanotech research and development. China currently spends around $600 million annually, ranking third in nanotech research after the United States and Japan. Countries including Brazil, India, Thailand, and South Africa have already allocated tens of millions of dollars for nanotechnology. Presumably, the fruits from this research will benefit the economies of these countries, which together hold almost half of the world’s population, including some of the world’s poorest people.

Nanotechnologies currently under development could be applied to solve many of the problems faced by the developing world. A paper by Fabio Salamanca-Buentello et al. found that nanotechnology could be applied to attain at least five of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG).2 The production of hydrogen storage systems based on carbon nanotubes, photovoltaic cells based on quantum dot technology, and nanocrystals for hydrogen creation would greatly enhance environmentally sustainable growth, the seventh MDG. Nanotech scientists also widely agree that nanotechnology could be used to increase agricultural productivity, enable better and cheaper water enhancement and purification technologies, and aid in disease diagnosis and screening.3

However, similar hopes were put forth for other technologies in the past, but the benefits to the poor have often been delayed and in some cases have never materialized. In the 1980s, there was great hope that biotechnologies, especially genetically modified organisms (GMOs), would solve hunger problems in the developing world. Over a quarter of a century later it is apparent that, while some GMO advances may have helped the poor, most of the benefits accrued in the developed world, where they are most widely grown and consumed. Many of the innovations that were supposed to dramatically improve the quality of life in the developing world, such as plants that could grow in the arid deserts of Africa, have not yet appeared.

The same is currently true with pharmaceuticals. Anti-retroviral AIDS medication can substantially increase the quality and length of life for those infected with AIDS, while significantly decreasing the rate of transmission of the deadly virus. However, most of these drugs are held under patents, which raise the price of the drug (because they are being produced by a monopoly) and do not allow developing countries to synthesize their own, cheaper generic versions of the drugs. Because of this, tens of millions of the world’s poorest people with AIDS have no access to lifesaving medication. Only recently has this begun to change; more aggressive policy action, taken earlier, could have saved many lives and prevented immense economic losses suffered by societies which can least afford them.

Nanotechnology could easily go the way of GMOs and AIDS drugs, especially if policy action is not taken.4 In the worst case, it might affect the developing world in an even more serious manner than GMOs and AIDS drugs, since not only would many of the benefits of nanotech innovations be unavailable to the developing world, but the economic gap between the developed and developing world could widen. Nanotechnology benefits come from both the productive process and the final product. Without enough capital and know-how to accumulate and use nanotech-enabled production technologies, the developing world would be outpaced in economic development by the developed world. The great economic disparities created could be highly destabilizing.

There would have to be conscious effort in both the developed and developing world to ensure that the benefits of nanotechnology are spread as widely as possible. Such efforts might include increased investment into encouraging world nanotechnology research and development, allowing developing countries to have exemptions from specific nanotech patents, innovative intellectual property efforts similar to biotech’s CAMBIA, and substantial resource and knowledge sharing between the developed and developing worlds. Without action today, it is unlikely that the many benefits nanotechnology can provide to the developing world will arrive in time for many of those who need them most.

1Sachs, Jeffrey. "The essential ingredient". The New Scientist August 17, 2002. Pg. 52

2Salamanca-Buentello et al., Fabio. "Nanotechnology and the Developing World". PLoS Medicine Vol. 2 No. 5, May 2005. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/...

3Ibid

4Invernizzi, Noela and Guillermo Foladori. "Nanotechnology and the Developing World: Will Nanotechnology Overcome Poverty or Widen Disparity?". Nanotechnology Law and Business Vol. 2 No. 3 2005.

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