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By Wagdy Sawahel for Intellectual Property Watch
Developing countries need to pool resources to ensure access to scientific and technical knowledge about nanotechnology in order to narrow the "nano-divide" - similar to the digital and genomics divides - resulting from the implications of nanotech-related intellectual property rights on monopoly practices, technology transfer and trade, according to experts.
Nanotechnology is at the junction of chemistry, physics, biology, computer science and engineering and is descriptively known as molecular manufacturing that involves the design, modelling, fabrication and manipulation of materials and devices at the atomic scale.
According to a 2004 report [pdf] entitled, "Nanoscience and nanotechnologies:
opportunities and uncertainties" published by two UK bodies, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, applications of nanotechnology are expected to revolutionise science and society through the nano-scale manufacture of materials, components, machines and ultra-small devices especially in the field of medicine, biotechnology, agriculture, manufacturing, materials science, aerospace, information technology, and telecommunications.
The report is available from the Council of Canadian Academics here.
As the applications of nanotechnology have potential benefits for the developing world, the United Nations Millennium Project's task force on science, technology and innovation identifies nanotechnology as an important tool for addressing poverty and achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals. These applications include cheap sustainable energy, better methods for disease diagnosis and treatment, cleaning polluted water, enzyme biosensors that can monitor soil or crop toxicity, and ‘nano-magnets' that can clean up oil spills by attracting oil.
But "nanotechnology could also have destructive impact on developing countries' economies," Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, former president of Alexandria's Mubarak City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications, told Intellectual Property Watch.
Abdel Al said nanotechnology could produce new and cheap materials replacing traditional materials and natural resources and lead to disrupting the trade of commodity-dependent developing countries.
IP and the Nano-Divide
According to a 2005 report from the Canadian action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC group) entitled "Nanotech's ‘Second Nature' Patents: implications for the global South," the world's largest trans-national companies, leading academic laboratories nanotech start-ups from the north especially the United States, Japan and Europe, are aggressively seeking intellectual property on nanotech's novel materials, devices and manufacturing processes. This will play a major role in deciding who will capture nanotech's trillion-dollar market as well as who will gain access to nano-scale technologies.
Stanford Law School researcher Mark Lemley said in a 2005 study entitled "Patenting Nanotechnology" that "…patents will cast a larger shadow over nanotech than they have over any other modern science at a comparable stage of development."
Silvia Ribeiro, from ETC Group's Mexico City office, told Intellectual Property Watch that "IP regimes are a key factor in the North-South technology divide, and this applies even more to nanotechnology."
Abdel Al added that with China constituting the bulk of patents from the South, the divide is not just between the North and South, it extends within the South.
A 2003 study carried out by the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto [pdf] and entitled "Mind The Gap': science and ethics in nanotechnology," divided developing nations that have made substantial investments in nanotechnology research and development into three categories: ‘front-runners' (China, India and South Korea); ‘middle ground' (Chile, Brazil, Philippines and Thailand), and ‘up and comers' (Argentina and Mexico).
"IP, properly managed, need not enlarge the divide," said Richard Gold, professor of intellectual property and President of the Innovation Partnership told Intellectual Property Watch. "Poorly managed, such as if patents are used to hoard knowledge and impair sharing can, however, have a severe negative impact."
Strategy for Reducing the Nano-Divide
Gold, a member of the expert panel on nanotechnology for the Council of Canadian Academies, said that "at this point, there are few products and services incorporating nanotechnology on the market so it is too early to determine exactly the shape and significance of the divide. All we can do is to be proactive in both monitoring the situation and in building the collaborations that will make such a divide less likely."
Gold said that "as nanotechnology is still in a relatively embryonic state of development, with few products and services on the market and few companies actually moving products to market, governments need to focus on facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge."
To achieve this, he said, governments need to ensure access to scientific information, such as through open access science journals and the means to access that information, like high speed internet, participation in international conferences, collaborations with world-leading institutions and trained scientists with quality scientific laboratories and equipments.
Gold said that the focus should be on infrastructure and collaborative mechanisms - particularly among universities - both on the science itself and on training doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows.
These collaborations should occur at the national, regional and international levels, he said. "Few middle- and lower-income countries - large middle-income countries such as China being the exception - have the capacity themselves to advance nanotechnology in a significant way," Gold said.
Collaborations between regional centres of excellence and local industry offer the greatest hope, he added. Institutions "must develop IP policies that promote sharing among each other, with industry and outside collaborations. Investments will be needed in connecting people and managing resources across multiple institutions."
Gold added that regional and international approaches also will be needed to provide funding for this work. "Some countries will have the ability to carry on this research themselves, but many if not most will not. By pooling resources, they increase their chances of participating in nanotechnology research and, subsequently, social and business opportunities that may arise from this."
Gold called on industry to take leadership in developing an independent and non-profit technology assessment body.
"I believe that such a body could be useful as developing countries start producing products and services that should be financed and supported," he said. "If the technology is objectively seen to work well and meet an important need - which would be what the assessment body would be mandated to review - this should help attract financing and attract those who can build the social and business models to disseminate the product or service."
Wagdy Sawahel may be reached at
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