Emerging technologies hold the promise of solving some of the world’s most critical problems. Nanotechnology, along with information technology, biotechnology and other new technologies, has great potential for addressing such challenges as energy and environmental degradation, the need for abundant clean water, increasing the availability of sustainable food resources, and efficient, low-cost disease diagnosis and treatment. As noted in an National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNworkshop report appropriately titled Nanotechnology: Societal Implications – Maximizing Benefits for Humanity,1
The potential value of nanotechnology for the developing world cannot be overestimated. Four billion people on the planet earn less than $2,000 per year. Ever day, more than 30,000 children die of preventable diseases. At least 1.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. For the 2 billion rural poor, biomass (wood, crop residue, and dung) is still the dominant source of fuel. The indoor smoke from solid fuel is one of the top 20 risk factors for the global burden of disease, accounting for 1.6 million premature deaths each year. Nanotechnology research has the potential to play a considerable role in mitigating these problems. For example, nanotechnology could be used to create: a low cost “lab on a chip” for infectious diseases that are prevalent in developing countries; affordable, carbon-free sources of energy that are accessible to the rural poor; water filtration systems that increase access to safe drinking water; or inexpensive, accurate, real-time sensors that can help protect water and air quality.
The NNI has been charged with supporting ethical, legal, and societal implications (ELSI) of nanotechnology in order to better:
- Understand societal ramifications
- Encourage distribution and exchange of information (collaboration)
- Develop new pathways for societal input into R&D
This mandate is especially challenging given the increasingly distributed nature of the global technological innovation system, which calls for greater international collaboration on technological innovation and regulation if the goals of the NNI are to be realized.
Interest in nanotechnology arises at least in part because of the potential it holds as a transformative technology. Nanotechnology can potentially impact a variety of diverse fields, such as aerospace, agriculture, energy, the environment, healthcare, information technology, homeland security, national defense and transportation systems. Although potential nanotechnological applications are expected in such a wide range of fields, uncertainty surrounding future applications and the potential impacts these developments may have on society, could hamper or impede development of nanotechnology.
Emerging Technologies/Emerging Economies: [Nano]technology for Equitable Development seeks to reduce this uncertainty. Emerging Technologies/Emerging Economies is a joint effort between the University of California, Santa Barbara’s National Science Foundation-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS-UCSB), the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Meridian Institute. Its goal is to foster a sharing of knowledge across the North/South divide, with the ultimate goal of more fully realizing the potential of emerging technologies, among those who otherwise might not fully share in their promise.
The conference will bring leading scientists and engineers from around the world, as well as leaders from international NGOs, governments, and private sector industries, to discuss new pathways for implementing technological solutions to problems in four interrelated areas: energy/environment, water, food security, and health. These are among the key challenges identified in the 2007 NNI Strategic Plan.2
With regard to the environment and energy, for example, the Strategic Plan notes that:
"The world demand for energy is expected to double by the year 2050. The difficulty of meeting this demand is compounded by the growing need to protect our environment. To resolve this challenge and provide secure energy resources, energy efficiency must be increased and new “clean” energy sources developed… Nanotechnology may provide novel solutions to these challenges. At the root of the opportunities nanoscience offers in energy research is a simple fact: many of the elementary steps in the storage and conversion of energy take place on the nanoscale. Furthermore, new functionalities of nanoscale materials emerge from high surface area, quantum size effects, high aspect ratio, reduced dimensionality, and intimate connectivity. The properties of engineered nanoscale materials, as well as the techniques used to image, measure, and manipulate these materials, create new opportunities for technologies."
With regard to water, the Strategic Plan observes that:
"Clean water is a basic necessity for people an animals and vital to agriculture, The worldwide supply of potable water is limited and demand is increasing. Disease-causing organisms often contaminate water in less developed parts to the world...Water pumped from deep aquifers often contains high levels of contaminants such as iron, manganese, and even arsenic, or has high salinity….Nanotechnology could help meet the need for safe, affordable water through inexpensive water purification and rapid, low-cost detection of impurities. Solutions are likely to come from many directions. Some may be applied locally while others will be best suited to central treatment facilities"
Food security is the third area the conference will address. According to a World Bank report3:
"Around 800 million go to bed hungry every night, one third of all preschool children are clinically malnourished, and 2 billion people are deficient in one or more micronutrients such as iron, vitamin A and zinc. The bottom line of these abject statistics is that more than 6 million children a year die of causes related to malnutrition… Food security is achieved when everyone has sufficient food to sustain a healthy and active life…. To prime the pump of economic development in agriculture we must start by sustainably increasing productivity, increasing the value per hectare of what is grown through improved crop yields and management practices."
Agriculture and food are among the eight selected nanotechnology application areas highlighted in the Strategic Plan.
Health is the fourth area the conference will address. Medicine and Health are also among the eight selected nanotechnology application areas highlighted in the Strategic Plan, which notes that:
"Early detection of a life-threatening disease, such as cancer, or rapid and accurate detection of a life-threatening exposure, such as to a chemical or biological agent, can make a difference between death and survival. Similar technological approaches can be used to detect the molecular signatures of disease, an environmental exposure, or the presence of toxins or microorganisms in food. However, current detection methods often require multiple steps, do not provide data in real time, are not quantitative, and have limited sensitivity and specificity. Nanotechnology has the potential to overcome the limitations of current approaches and thereby advance the diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening diseases, enhance our national security, and improve food safety."
The importance of pursuing a global, multi-stakeholder approach to addressing such pressing problems is well recognized. The 2003 National Nanotechnology Coordination Office Report,2 for example, emphasizes that there is now:
"…broad consensus that rational management of the innovation process, including nanotechnology innovation, must involve a variety of stakeholders beyond the scientific community, including representatives of the general public. The wide range of interests in society must provide value-based inputs that can be used to balance economic development needs with those of human health, the environment, and more broadly, the quality of life. Feedback – from a well-informed public and from international collaboration has become essential for progress. More interactions between scientists, economists, and the public are needed to identify and reach the robust balance between benefits and risks that apply to innovative technologies, including nanotechnology."
Participants in the Emerging Technologies/Emerging Economies conference come from the United States, Europe, and Japan; from three of the largest emerging economies (China, India, and Brazil); and from developing countries from Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. The goal of the conference is to facilitate constructive exchange of ideas and experiences among the above-mentioned development stakeholders. We hope to initiate a dialogue between the research community and on-the-ground actors working to find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. A principal intellectual aim of the meeting is to bridge the science and technology gap between the developed and developing worlds. The workshop will promote a two-way exchange of ideas – both about the science and engineering aspects of application-specific emerging technologies, and about the ways in which innovations might better lead to equitable development outcomes in the four workshop application areas.
To better achieve this exchange of ideas, facilitation will be provided by the Meridian Institute, a non-governmental organization that specializes in supporting multi-stakeholder discussions and has done extensive work overseas in promoting global dialogues on nanotechnology and the world’s poor.