I write in response to the announcement on 11 June 2003 of a study on nanotechnology, to be undertaken by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the request for initial views on the study and the key issues it should consider.

We would suggest that key issues for the study are:

ITDG is an international NGO whose mission is to help eradicate poverty in developing countries by developing and using technology, and by demonstrating results, sharing knowledge and influencing others. The organisation has over thirty years experience in supporting poor women and men to access, use and adapt technologies that meet their needs. One of our new strategic aims is to enable poor people to assess and respond to the challenges of new technologies and to develop and adapt applications that improve their livelihoods. We are particularly concerned to ensure that there is greater understanding of the likely effects of nanotechnology on people in developing countries.

The scope of the study, as announced, will include defining ‘what is meant by nanoscience and nanotechnology and to summarise the current state of scientific knowledge about these fields’. We would suggest that this needs to go beyond description, and consider the implications of the multi- or cross-disciplinary nature of nanotechnology for government, legal liability and regulatory provisions. Similarly the study should consider the implication for regulations of the difference in behaviour between nano-sized and larger particles of the same material.

In considering the specific applications of nanotechnologies the study should consider where the demand for these applications is coming from, and whether any of these applications are likely to address the needs of human society. Given the significant sums of public funding for nanotechnology research in Europe, the study should consider how funding priorities for research in this field are determined and whether criteria should be revised.

We welcome the intention of the study to “assess the potential health, safety and environmental impacts of the applications of nanotechnology”. This should cover the complete life cycle of nanotechnology applications, from raw material through to waste disposal. The study should take account of the lessons to be drawn from the recent findings of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on the health effects of chemicals and consider how to avoid another “gigantic experiment with humans and all other living things as the subject”. It seems clear from the work of Dr Vyvyan Howard ('Nano-particles and toxicity', April 2003) that enough is known about what we do not know about the impacts on human health for the study to endorse a precautionary principle when it comes to nanotechnology applications.

On the moral and ethical issues, the study has a number of areas to consider: equity, privacy, security, environment, and metaphysical questions. The study will need to examine military applications for nanotechnology and whether they are covered by or would circumvent existing arms control treaties. The cultural, ethical and philosophical issues associated with the creation of new materials and the convergence between life sciences and materials science raises may affect the way mankind relates to the natural world. How public debate on these questions can be assisted is a question for the study team.

We note that the study, as announced, does not intend to consider the economics of nanotechnology. With some commentators suggesting that nanotechnology will become, within a relatively short period, a dominant aspect of manufacturing industry, it would be sensible to have a comprehensive assessment of impacts of nanotechnology, including the economic. As well as the potential implications for raw materials supplies and structure and location of manufacturing, effects on the labour market, the economic analysis should look at how the control of competition in manufacturing industry.

Nanotechnology applications that have been developed or described so far are not technologies that will address the immediate problems facing poor people in developing countries. Therefore the question facing developing countries concerns the implications for them of the North developing what might be called a 'nano-economy'. What will be the implication for production systems and supply chains; for raw material suppliers and producers of primary products; for employment? Will the capability to engage in the 'nano-economy' determine whether the gap between rich and poor deepens? How will the impacts on human health and the environment that the North will likely experience, have a bearing on people in developing countries?

A further concern for developing countries is the detraction of attention and resources away from the needs of the poor that will result from the promotion and debate about nanotechnology. For example, resources for technological R&D could be diverted from the problems of poor people by national governments in the South wanting to enter the 'nano-economy'.

There are few in developing countries yet equipped to ask these questions, let alone begin to answer them from their own perspective. There is a need, therefore, for the UK and other industrialised countries to support awareness raising about nanotechnology amongst Southern policy makers, and to build capability in developing countries to engage in the debate about nanotechnologies and how they should be regulated internationally.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Scott,
Policy and Programmes Director
Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG)