NEW YORK, March 11 (UPI) -- The poor of the world, who make up nearly 80 percent of the global population, might benefit most from emerging nanotechnologies, but not unless nations commit the funding and policies necessary to spread those benefits, experts told UPI's Nano World.
"The complexity of ... nanotechnology and the poor makes it a very challenging issue, but one where, if you can make the effort, can have a lot of rewards," said Todd Barker, a partner at the non-profit Meridian Institute in Dillon, Colo.
"Millions of people lack access to safe water, efficient sources of energy and healthcare," Barker said. "Nanotechnologies may promise effective solutions in these areas."
The World Bank estimates 4.8 billion people in the world are poor. Waterborne diseases and water-linked illnesses kill more than 5 million people a year worldwide, 85 percent of them children, according to the World Health Organization.
Barker said his institute, in preparing a report on nanotechnology and the poor for an April conference in Alexandria, Egypt, found a number of water-filtering systems based on nanotechnology that could save lives in the developing world. For instance, Argonide, a company in Sanford, Fla., with backing from NASA, uses alumina nanofibers whose positive-charge filters water by pulling out negatively charged viruses and bacteria.
More than 2 billion people currently have no access to electricity that could pump water, power rural clinics and refrigerate medicines, the report noted. A potential solution could come from Konarka, an energy technology firm in Lowell, Mass., which is developing inexpensive nanotechnology-based, high-efficiency, flexible, lightweight solar-power cells for electricity.
Nanotechnology could enable many health breakthroughs to help the poor. Meridian's report named Starpharma, in Melbourne, Australia, as the developer of nanotech microbicides that could reduce the risk of HIV infection in women. It found the Central Scientific Instruments Organization in India planning to develop nanotech-based tuberculosis diagnostic kits that work more quickly, use less blood and cost less per test.
Despite such promising technologies, "there appears to be little effort among the various sectors of society -- government, nongovernmental organizations, business, donors and academia -- to connect the development of nanotechnology with the needs of poor people in developing countries," Barker said.
A surprising number of nations with large poor populations are investing in nanotechnology, he said. China, South Korea and India are front-runners, with the Philippines, South Africa, Brazil and Chile in the middle and Argentina and Mexico as up-and-comers.
"Even in countries where a large proportion of citizens are poor, little of this investment is being directed towards research and applications that could directly benefit the poor," Barker noted. "Most government investments in nanotechnology are aimed at improved national corporate competitiveness."
The South African Nanotechnology Initiative, or SANI, is one exception, he added.
"SANI aims to establish a critical mass in nanotechnology R&D for the benefit of all its citizens," Barker said. "Projects include the development of improved and cheaper solar cells and nano-membrane technology for water. Another exception is an agreement among the governments of India, Brazil and South Africa, who have identified potential areas of scientific cooperation, including nanotechnology research and efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS."
Not only that, he noted, "nanotechnology could be problematic for poorer countries if it makes their labor, commodities and other exports less necessary in the global market." A dramatic reduction in demand for raw materials, which some experts have predicted nanotechnology will make possible, could lead developing countries to suffer "economic disruption as a result of jobs and economic activity being lost," he said.
Nanotechnology promises to help the majority of the world's poor if it could be incorporated into existing targeted business strategies. This requires recognizing that the markets in developing countries and the nearly 5 billion poor represent growth opportunities.
Two examples: Poor corn farmers in Colombia cannot afford improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides at planting time, but DuPont, working with government agencies, has developed a program to pre-pay farmers for a portion of their expected harvest. As a result, they can afford DuPont's products. Also, GrupoNueva, headquartered in San Jose, Costa Rica, has developed roughly a dozen pro-poor business projects, including one to help farmers finance the purchase of simple irrigation units, with which they can double their harvests.
"These are the markets of tomorrow, and as these markets open up, it's really smart not to alienate your markets," said David Berube, associate director for nanoscience and technology studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
"You can just see Mexico growing and growing for a lot of American products," Berube told Nano World, "and if nano begins using Mexico for dumping grounds or ignores their needs for more luxury items, it's not good for the market."
Barker said he was unaware of any pro-poor business projects that involve nanotechnology, however.
"This may be a missed opportunity for companies in at least two ways," he said. "First, there may be a mass market in the developing world for simple, nano-based products such as water filters or photovoltaic devices. Second, public acceptance of nanotechnology could be enhanced if business could demonstrate benefits early in the rollout process. Nano-based applications for the poor could be a boost to the technology overall, raising its stature in the public perception and its acceptability by society."
Bryan Bruns, a sociologist with the Foresight Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., said the most important way governments could use nanotechnology to help the poor "would be to open access to knowledge through better policies on intellectual property, including full publication of publicly-funded research in ways that are accessible and affordable."
Other strategies should include open-source licenses or 'creative commons' and non-exclusive licenses, he said, and these should be combined with free or low-cost access, prompt processing and full disclosure of patents, plus prizes for key technology innovations that serve the poor, such as cheap solar energy and affordable medical diagnostic tests.
On the academic side, Barker added, universities that restrict access to nanotechnology research through patents or other forms of intellectual property protection "can think about a provision for humanitarian use in developing countries."
Berube noted Congress was considering amending the Bayh-Dole Act, which gives universities control over patents they produce with federal grants to provide for humanitarian aid. "That would be one big step -- a major effort to help," he said.
Nano World is a weekly series examining the exploding field of nanotechnology, by Charles Choi, who covers research and technology for UPI Science News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org