Monday, March 28, 2005

U Toronto Program in Applied Ethics article on DEVELOPING COUNTRIES

Erin Court, Abdallah Daar, Elizabeth Martin, Tara Acharya and Peter Singer, "Will Princes Charles et al diminish the opportunities of developing countries in nanotechnology?" See www.nanotechweb.org/articles/society/3/1/1/1/. January 24, 2004.

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This article discusses the nano-divide. In it they warn the rhetoric, to date, has failed "to consider and understand how nanotechnology can bring benefits to ... people in developing countries. It discussed nanotechnology and its implications for disease diagnostics and treatment, water purification and environmental cleanup, etc. It warned that "risk management issues specific to developing countries: displacement of traditional markets, the imposition of foreign values..." They warned we need to cognizant that developing countries do not have the "resource to establish, monitor and enforce safety regulations."

The article tackles the compelling question: "Will industrialized nations continue to invest in stain-resistant 'nano' pant, nanotechnology-based cosmetic and other products solely for the rich, or will nanotechnology's potential to improve lives in the developing world be seized?" This question needs to be addressed soon and here at South Carolina we have spent some time mulling over it. While it is easy to predict the primary beneficiaries of this new science/technology will be the affluent, this does not mean the benefits for people in developing countries will be foregone. Though trickle-down economics is a difficult theory to defend, there is some good evidence that technology does trickle down given time and as markets continue to grow as a result of globalization. Though globalization has many negative side-effects, one of the benefits has been reductions in infant mortality and other indicators. Applied nanoscience will reach into these markets and while some products sold there will be luxury products, others will be more practical.

They also ask whether the debate over nanotechnology will resemble the one over GMOs. Analogies are rhetorical devices. They have tenor, vehicle, and tension. The tenor is nanotechnology, the vehicle is the GMO controversy, and the reader assumes the tension is low, which would make it a strong analogy. However, a more detailed understanding supports a contrary conclusion. Clever similarity is not the only characteristic of analogies.

Arguments of a variety have been made about the positive relationship between GMOs and nanotechnology. (1) Public perception is developing along a similar track whereby the biotechnologists assumed everyone would embrace GMOs once they knew how beneficial they were. (2) The disconnections between their long-term benefits and short-term risks have not been addressed. (3) Both biotechnology and nanotechnology seem to be messing with nature (an issue revisited below). (4) Both of these industries are associated with transnational corporations, witness the ETC Group. (5) There is distrust in corporate businesses that which transfers into biotechnology and nanotechnology. (6) There are like concerns associated with the basic patenting of life and the building-blocks of life. (7) Some European anti-GMO groups may be crossing over to challenge nanotechnology. The leap to anti-nanotechnology protestors is not improbable. Indeed, many of the activists now calling for strict controls on nanotechnology are veterans of the GMO crop wars. We have a situation where anti-globalization protestors have converted in many instances into anti-GMO protestors as well. (8) Both the claims of GMOs and nanotechnology are hyperbolized. These characteristics are hardly essential to the analogy, but describe a multitude of concerns about technology drivers of all sorts.

BUT there are differences as well. The European experience with GMOs is unlike what may happen here for at least five major reasons. (1) Overall public support and trust for science and technology in the US remains strong. That is not the case in Western Europe. (2) The historio-cultural sociology of Western European environmental groups and movement are distinctly different from those in the US. For example, the Green Party has never been able to foothold into American politics. (3) Applied nanoscience is a general-purpose technology unlike GMOs. (4) Campaigners warned that the next great anti-technology battle will be fought not in fields of GMO crops but outside the high tech plants of nanotechnology manufacturers. While rhetorically powerful, the diversified nature of nanotechnology as an industry, if there is an industry, significantly reduces concentrated target points. Where do the protestors congregate? To date, there have been mild protests at the Berkeley Foundry and the THONG protests at the November 2004 NanoCommerce Convention. (5) Protests and boycotts associated with products have generally failed in the US and groups and movements are easily sated and demobilized in America.

They go on to cite from "promising examples of North-South partnerships, e.g., the FP6 EU cooperation with third partner countries" and "US funding nanotechnology in Vietnam." BUT these are clearly exceptional.

The article ends with a call for foresight studies and claim “there is at the moment no global focal point to commission and collect research results… for managing nanotechnology’s associated risks and promoting global public goods, provide a platform for constructive dialogue among all stakeholders…” While we agree, we hope that the forthcoming Center for Nanotechnology in Society will address some of these needs and concerns.

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