Ethical Considerations in Nanotechnology: Market- or Policy-driven Priorities?

Perhaps one of the biggest ethical challenges of nanotechnology and the opportunities it could bring is simply figuring out who will make the choices and how wise those choices will be.

What should be the priorities of nano research? If third-world countries could be helped by improvements in energy production or water quality, should those basic needs come before the need of a middle-class person to replicate his own iPhone or to charge his laptop only once a month?

Will the financial benefits of consumers willing to spend money on a product or service outweigh the needs of poor countries and starving children? And will these choices be made country by country or on a global scale?

The question of how advances in nano might benefit third-world countries is one of the most discussed nano issues today. A 2004 piece in Science Daily (“Nanotechnology’s Miniature Answers to Developing World’s Biggest Problems”) is still highly relevant.

The article, which addresses several areas of nanotechnology benefits, including healthcare and energy, states:

“Most waves of technology can increase the gap between rich and poor, but the harnessing of nanotechnology represents a chance to close those gaps.”

The article goes on to note that several third-world countries, including India, Thailand, Mexico, and the Philippines, are working to develop their own nanotechnology initiatives to ensure that they are not left out in the cold.

All of which begs the question, is anybody orchestrating the potential of nano to help third-world countries? Folks at the Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics, who note that nanotechnology could address many of the world’s most critical problems, have stated that

“…to our knowledge, there has been no systematic prioritization of nanotechnology targeted towards these challenges faced by the five billion people living in the developing world.”

As to who will make the many ethical choices that nano presents, Jacob Heiler and Christine Peterson published a brief on the Foresight Institute website that nicely sums up how society might ensure that nanotechnology benefits will be distributed fairly:

“Ensuring that nanotech benefits humanity, rich and poor alike, is a matter of policy. Deliberate and early action can be taken by governments and non-governmental organizations to increase the odds that the benefits to nanotechnology are widespread, and don’t needlessly exacerbate already large disparities.”
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