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Nanotechnology for the poor?

Posted by plosmedicine on 30 Mar 2009 at 23:42 GMT

Author: Guillermo Foladori
Position: Research Scholar
Institution: Universidad Autonoma de Zacatecas, Mexico
Additional Authors: Noela Invernizzi
Submitted Date: May 23, 2005
Published Date: May 23, 2005
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

After interviewing 63 experts the authors identified the 10 main nanotechnologies that could provide a solution to such problems as water, agriculture, health. Overflowing with good intentions, the proposal reflects the idea that if a problem can be identified, all that has to be done is apply a suitable technology and it will be solved. Most of the examples do not take into account that the relationship between science and society is much more complex:

I. They suggest that quantum dots could detect HIV-AIDs molecules in the early stages, facilitating the treatment and reducing the number of new cases. The authors seem to forget the story of the last years, which has been one of open war between multinational pharmaceutical corps. and countries that intended to manufacture antiretrovirals. Nanotechnology products are already being patented. A patent in the USA costs thirty thousand dollars in legal bureaucracy, and a worldwide patent may be as much as 250 000. (1) Moral of the story: The efficiency and implications of the application of technology depend on the given social context.

II. The article identifies nanotechnology as the solution to 5 of the 8 Millennium Goals. Among these solutions are nanosensors to improve the dosage of water and fertilization of plants, and hopefully reduce poverty and hunger. But, not so long ago, Genetically Modified Organisms were hailed as the solution that would put an end to hunger. However, GMO ended up being used mainly in developed countries. There has been no improvement for Third World countries; quite the contrary, transgenics turned up where they were not wanted, as was the case in Oaxaca. (2) Moral of the story: the choice of technology is not a neutral process. It is not necessarily true that which is best and meets our needs will be the one to survive.

III. The interviews with 38 scientists from developing countries should allow them to speak of the interests of those countries as their spokespeople. In an article prior, 3 of the same authors maintained that the position adopted by Prince Charles, arguing that nanotechnology will widen the gap between rich and poor countries, and the position of the ETC group requesting for a moratorium ignores the voices of the people in developing countries. (3) With this research the authors intended to fill this gap. But the opinion of scientists involved in nanotechnology does not necessarily fall in with the most appropriate pathways for satisfying the needs of the poor. Scientists are pressured by public funds to survive, by the criteria of relevance and themes of scientific periodicals, by generally self-censured publications. We may concur that infectious diseases are one of the main problems that the developing world is facing, but we may differ radically on how a solution to this problem should be attained. Prevention is not the same thing as a cure. Nanotechnology is not necessary to reduce malaria radically, as is suggested by the authors. In the Henan Province of Chine, malaria was reduced by 99% between 1965 and 1990 as a result of social mobilization backed up by fumigation, the use mosquito nets and traditional medicine. Vietnam reduced the number of malaria-related deaths by 97% between 1992 and 1997 with similar procedures. (4) Moral of the story: there are many means to an end, and technology is not always the solution. Organizing people can be just as important.

1. Regalado, A. 2004. Nanotechnology Patents Surge. The Wall Street Journal 06/18/2004, A1.
2. Schapiro, M. 2003. Blowback in genetic engineering. In: Lightman, Sarewitz, Desser, Living with the genie. Washington D.C.: Island Press.
3. Court, E.; Daar, A.; Martin, E.; Acharya, T.; Singer, P. 2004. Will Prince Charles et al diminish the opportunities of developing countries in nanotechnology?
4. WHO. 2002.

No competing interests declared.