Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The developing world and the myth of industry

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.

toptenThe 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?

Anyone? Anyone?

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.

Another update: Reuters has a story, too, and here's the press release from EurekAlert.

NanoBot Backgrounder
Do you breathe oxygen? Hey, I breathe O2, too!
Nano World: Haves and have-nots
Conquer the Divide


Richard Jones said...

Not quite zero. This company, for example, makes forward osmosis water purifiers that, although too expensive currently for everyday use in the developing world, are already used for disaster relief. The company doesn't themselves call this nanotechnology, but they quite legitimately could.

Richard Jones said...

Another example: insecticide treated mosquito nets have been shown to be a very effective and appropriate tool in the fight against malaria. Here's an example of what is currently used to treat the nets; at this stage the insecticide is micro-encapsulated rather than nano-encapsulated, but work is going on to increase the longevity and durability of the treatments and this means going smaller.

There's a lot more to the nanotechnology industry than the nanotechnology industry, if you see what I mean.

jim thomas said...

The lack of critical questioning by the BBC in this piece saddens me. (and by who exactly in the BBC? this seems to be an anonymous piece)..

What we are seeing once again is a technology platform in search of a moral justification (or put another way: a friendly PR angle perhaps?), not to mention some 'bioethicists' in search of new sources of industrial funding - we wrote about Singer et al already here and the industrial co-option of pliable ethicists is an old tactic (see quote below).

Singer's nano-evangelists would have done themselves more favours in terms of academic impartiality if they had addressed the question of nanotech's impact in the round rather than base their entire study on a limited survey of theoretical benefits. They could have asked what will be the impact on livelihoods of changing commodity streams (replacing cotton, rubber, copper etc with new nanomaterials)?, who will own, control and be afforded access to water technologies or new health technologies or energy technologies?, What are the impacts of nanopatents on accessibility to new and existing technologies? how will indigenous agriculture, health or energy production systems be helped or undermined? What about the changes in warfare and global security brought about by nanotech (conflict always hurts the poor and vulnerable hardest) etc.. Instead this is a laughably simplistic bit of PR dressed up as "development", published in a non-development journal (a medical journal).

Unfortunately I can't access the list of 'experts consulted' (can anyone else?) however I get the sense that these primarily are NOT 'experts' in development, poverty alleviation and so forth. More importantly the methodological focus on 'experts' misses the learning lesson that who needs to be listened to in 'development' are not external 'experts' but those whose lives and livelihoods will be impacted - the poor and marginalised - who for too long have been the victims of other people's well-meaning but patronising assumptions of what is best for them. Real 'development' shares this with nanotechnology: - it comes from the bottom up. At least The Global Dialogue on Nanotech and the Poor is smart enough to try to enagage those who know something about the real history, politics and challenges of international poverty. The responses in that forum show a more nuanced understanding of what external technology introduction means for underpriviliged communities in the global south.

"Why do drug companies want to give money to bioethicists in the first place? In the public relations business, this approach is called ‘third-party strategy.’ Third-party strategy is defined as the art of getting your message into the mouth of an authoritative third party. Often, when a drug company is launching a new drug, it recruits a third party known as a Key Opinion Leader: an influential figure respected by his or her peers and often eagerly sought out by the press. The KOL could be a grand rounds speaker at a teaching hospital, an author on the talk show circuit, or a freelance journalist interested in covering a medical conference. It could also be a socially conscious bioethicist…It's no mystery, then, why pharmaceutical companies want to brand themselves with bioethics. But do bioethicists really want to brand themselves with Pharma?" – Carl Elliot, "Not-So-Public Relations: How the drug industry is branding itself with bioethics," Slate, Dec. 15, 2003.

Richard Jones said...

Jim, to focus on specifics, what would you consider to be an appropriate, "bottom-up" approach to dealing with malaria in the south? (This isn't a rhetorical question, I'm genuinely interested in your views on this).

Christine Peterson said...

The water purifier company link in the first comment does not seem to be working. What is the correct URL?


Howard Lovy said...

Hi, Christine. I'm not sure which company Richard was referring to. He accidentally linked back to my site, and I'm pretty sure I don't make forward osmosis water purifiers. I'll check with my son, though.

However, just a quick look through my files shows that the U.S. Army is very interested in water purification devices when they go and handle emergencies overseas. I'm sure the soldiers who helped out after the tsunami would have loved to have had this available. The U.S. Army center in Natick, Mass., recently put out a solicitation for one over here. And Argonide Corp. received a grant last year to develop a portable water purification system to remove chemical and biological agents.

This actually highlights one of my original points, which is that these companies, on their own, are not going to produce any finished product. In this case, it takes the U.S. Department of Defense to put out a wish list of stuff that it needs, and provide incentives through SBIR grants.

These companies are producing products to meet the needs of the U.S. Army because that's where the funding is available. But Argonide -- and whichever company wins this grant Natick -- could just as easily do it for a developing nation. But somebody has to step up and ask for it, and provide funding.


Richard Jones said...

My apologies for the fouled-up link. The company making forward osmosis water purifiers is HTI.

jim thomas said...

re:'bottom-up approach to dealing with malaria in the south'
well, its going to be different in the specifics by context and culture (i'm not trying to be tricky here) but malarial control obviously involves appropriate sanitation that can be designed, managed and fixed locally, specific interventions (such as nets and window barriers) that can be produced inexpensively and preferably sourced from local materials and know-how, ecosystem approaches to reducing mosquito populations around places where people sleep and accessible healthcare systems that can diagnose and deal with malaria early on.. In most countries I have been in with mosquitos there have always been traditional insecticides or mosquito repellent options (eg based on citronella, pepper, garlic, lemongrass etc) and these don't rely on external patented microcapsule technology owned by Syngenta or Bayer - as seems to be the case with the insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITMN).

It may be that ITMN are appropriate parts of malarial control for some communities (thats for them, not me or you to say) but even the WHO guidelines on their use recognise ITMN are of limited use where communities are unhappy and unfamiliar with synthetic pesticides, where people do not traditionally sleep indoors (eg guarding animals, for hot humid weather and religious festivals). They also recognise that 'many managerial and operational aspects involved in their delivery and financing, as well as the overall issues of sustainability are not yet ascertained.' ie. its all a bit more complex out there in the macroworld...

Howard Lovy said...

Richard, I'm sure you're a brilliant researcher, but you're a dangerous man with html. The company is Hydration Technology Inc. (HTI).

If you look at their news section, you'll see that its X Pack was used for tsunami relief. The company's biggest customer is, of course, the U.S. military.

According to the company's technology page, it filters to 5 angstroms, or 0.5 nanometers. Pretty darn small. I wonder why they don't sell themselves as nanotechnology? Other companies with less of a claim on the prefix scream it to the world. It may be that it doesn't have to. Looks like HTI has found a customer it doesn't need to advertise to.

But when it comes to the point I was trying to make about 200 paragraphs ago, this is still just a company with a membrane. The military has taken it and ordered products to its specifications. HTI says the product is now available to the public, which means they're open to commercial licensing to anybody.

So, the opportunity is there for a partner to step in and create a product using HTI's membrane that would be suitable for the large-scale problems of water contamination in developing countries. The pieces are there, HTI's membrane could be a part of the overall solution, but there's still nothing available. That take vision and investment.


Richard Jones said...

Sorry, how I managed to screw up twice the same way I don't know.

I don't think the membrane is HTI's, in fact; they had the product idea and bought the membrane in. I'm not completely sure about this, but I think it's regenerated cellulose in some form - i.e., basically cellophane. It's an area that I know the Belgian chemical company UCB was working in but since then they've sold the business on.

I don't think you should be surprised that they don't choose to advertise themselves as a nanotechnology company, despite having a pretty good basis for doing this. I believe that this is the rule rather than the exception; beneath the tiny tip of companies that loudly proclaim themselves to be nanotech companies, there's a huge iceberg of companies using nanoscale technologies without advertising the fact.