At last, the nanotech message is beginning to move beyond the cloistered world of nanopeople talking nanotalk among their nanoselves. This BBC News report contains the usual "predictions" about how nanotechnology will someday send Sally Struthers packing by solving every single problem in the developing world, from better farming tools to cleaner water to cleaner air, etc.
But the BBC report does not dwell on the "someday," for a change. There are also, finally, some suggestions on how to make it happen. The authors of a study on this topic recommend launching a separate initiative modeled on Grand Challenges in Global Health, a program started last year by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The 63 specialists consulted on the report should be given credit for realizing that these technologies will not magically appear in the world's developing nations. There needs to be a strong will to make it happen, a carefully laid out vision and, of course, there's nothing like a source of cash to get those nanotech labs and companies to turn their heads and pay attention.
The authors, thankfully, are not taken in by nanotech's myth of "industry." The nano world actually does itself a disservice by artificially creating this label. "Industry" implies some kind of cohesion, some sense of working toward a common goal. Well, the developing world -- and any other sector that can really use nanotechnology now -- will need to wait a long, long time for any nanotech "industry" to emerge and hand them the tools they need.
The researchers and companies that have the enabling technologies are all working in disparate, unrelated areas and going after scattered sources of funding. There's no reason why they should find one another and somehow decide to put together a care package of nanotech water filters and farm tools. It's up to those who care about the developing world -- and can raise the cash -- to gather together the right kinds of tools, materials and processes and create a temporary "industry" of companies working toward the same goal.
Without somebody from the "macro world" who is informed enough about nanotech to know which nano-peddlers to invite over to their office, the nano world will continue have fun with its Tinkertoys and talk about "someday." But nothing will actually be built.
A perfect illustration of this point accompanies the BBC article. See that list of "Top 10 Nanotech Uses" above? How many of these "uses" really exists as a product that can be deployed to the developing world today?
Yes, that's right. Zero.
Update: Boy, when I go to sleep, Great Britain is wide awake and contributing to NanoBot. Thank you, Richard and Jim (see comments below). A few updates: You can look at the PLoS Medicine report online here, or download it here (PDF, 220 KB). SciDev.Net (which has been doing some excellent nano reporting lately) has its take on the story here and the EC's Cordis news service has a report here. A list of panel members can be found here, according to PloS Medicine, but the link seems to be dead right now.