Monday, May 2, 2005


Canadian Program on Genomics and Global Health at the University of Toronto Joint Center for Bioethics, "Nanotechnology's miniature answers to developing world's biggest problems,", April 12, 2005. Retrieved from on April 20, 2005.

Nanohype is not only about exaggerated negative assessments of nanotechnology but also the highly positive ones. While it is completely understandable when we hear industry spokespersons and government bureaucrats hailing the positive aspect of applied nanoscience, one is taken a bit aback when this same type of rhetoric is espoused by an independent group of academics and researchers.

Let's not blame PhysOrg entirely. The report can be found all over the web in has appeared in whole and part in multiple hardcopy publications as well.

As well, the award goes to the Canadian Program on Genomics and Global Health at the University of Toronto Joint Center for Bioethics and I have been a fan of their work (see March 28,2005 post). In this case, they did an Internet survey of nanotechnology applications in development worldwide with the greatest potential for the poor. The study found: "several nanotechnology applications will help people in developing countries tackle their most urgent problems--extreme poverty and hunger, child mortality, environmental degradation and diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS."

According to Peter Singer, "The targeted application of nanotechnology has enormous potential to bring about major improvements in the living standards of people in the developing world."

First, this methodology is highly questionable and without any control over the sample we must take these findings with a proverbial grain of salt. This author participated in this survey. Second, these findings ignore both the time frames for this discussion and the politics involved in making predictions of this sort. When the first nano-products on the market have been luxury and vanity products like stain-free pants, better tennis rackets and balls, etc., we need to seriously question whether the truckle down scenario which has been proven so false in economics will be any more accurate in technology transfer and commercialization.

The report lists the top ten and reminds me of Jay Leno's The Tonight Show routine except this version is not intended to be humorous.

Take, for example, number 3 (which I ranked number 1). According to Salamanca-Buentello, "More than one-third of the population of rural areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin American has no clean water, and two million children die each year from water-related diseases, such as diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, and scistosomiasis, which result from a lack of adequate water sources and sanitation." The report claims that "Nano-membranes and nano-clays are inexpensive, potable and easily cleaned systems that purify, detoxify and desalinate water more efficiently than conventional bacterial and viral filters.... Titanium dioxide and magnetic nano-particles systems could decompose organic pollutants and remove salts and heavy metals from liquids, enabling the use of heavily contaminated and salt water for irrigation and drinking."

While this would be wonderful, it is important to situate discussion within the societal-political setting that nano-products will enter. The first filters will be commercial products sold for American homes and municipal water treatment. Unless, countries, like Israel, focus directly on nanoscience and desalination, as they seem to be doing, it will be some time before nanotechnology is applied there.

Instead of continuing to harp on the wonderful implications nanoscience may hold, it is time to assess how we can get to the benefits from where we are currently situated. The drone needs to be toned down and the debate over long-term and transformative benefits to society needs to add the variable of implementation. Too much of what appears in the media ignore too much of the reality of nanotechnology and this is merely an example.


Anonymous said...

For the May Nanohype award, perhaps:
"Today, more people live in freedom than at any time in history. Although poverty is still a serious worldwide problem, more people are healthier and better fed than ever before. And despite regional wars and terrorist attacks (which have beset civilization for centuries), we have managed to avoid destroying ourselves with full-scale thermonuclear war.
"But looming just over the horizon is a grave threat. It is nanotechnology."

Best -- Charles Choi

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