Taking nano to the needy: A Small Times Q&A with Fabio Salamanca-Buentello

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June 15, 2005 – Mexican native Fabio Salamanca-Buentello co-authored a report listing 10 nanotechnology applications that third world experts said would have the most impact on developing nations. Published in the April issue of PLoS Medicine, the report calls for an initiative similar to the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health. Salamanca-Buentello began his career as a medical researcher and is now a member of the University of Toronto’s Joint Center for Bioethics. He spoke with Small Times’ Candace Stuart about the report and its goals.

Why is it important for the more affluent nations involved in nanotechnology to consider the needs of developing nations?

There are roughly more than 600 million people in developed nations and 5 billion in developing countries, so simply by the numbers the interests of five-sixths of the population of the planet are at stake here. Given how the world has shrunk with globalization, it is in the best interest of all nations, particularly those with resources, to try to increase the life standards for everybody.

From an ethical point of view, the most pressing problem of our times is the inequality between the populations of the rich countries and the poor countries; and within the poor countries, the disparities between the people at the top of the socio-economic pyramid and the people at the bottom. Therefore it is an ethical imperative to try to decrease this gap, and science and technology are very good tools to achieve this.

Why did you feel it was necessary to identify not only what the needs are but to prioritize them?

With identification we see which are the technologies that are better tools to address the (needs of) developing countries. With the prioritization we provide a roadmap that people at different levels of decision-making power can use to know what to address first. Most of the experts came from developing countries, so (they) consider that these were the applications that would have the greater impact.

The study mentions that several developing nations have nanotechnology programs. Do you know whether the nanotechnology programs target the applications that are on your list?

Absolutely. In India for example there are research groups working on nano drug-delivery systems to treat tuberculosis. In South Africa there is an interest in nanotechnology for mining. In Brazil there is a group using nanomagnets to clean up oil spills. I would say developing countries have started in many cases to address these issues and have realized that the priorities are in energy, water, health and agriculture, and not in soft drinks.

Most of the applications in the top 10 are being pursued in a number of countries. What do we need to be doing in nations like the United States or Canada to ensure that these technologies can be used in other nations as well?

First, if something is good enough for rich countries then it is good enough for poor countries. If there is an interest in developing solar cells from nanomaterials … in Canada, the U.S., Japan or Europe, then it would be not only ethical but common sense for the researchers pursuing this to turn toward the developing countries and see that these technologies can have a very important impact.

Let me give you an example. A very good researcher here at the University of Toronto was developing quantum dots for diagnosis. After he began to collaborate with us (Joint Center for Bioethics) he realized that there was a huge opportunity to benefit lots of people with quantum dots and so he began developing models of quantum dots for the diagnosis of malaria. This can be done with a handheld device that can be carried anywhere.

How do you get industry to start thinking this way? It’s one thing for people to be creating ideas and working on very early stage testing devices but it is another thing to actually make enough at a cost that makes them feasible to use.

The idea is to encourage domestic innovation in the developing countries. The most successful developing countries like China, India and Brazil have not only a national nanotechnology initiative but industries that have figured out that it is in their best interest to link with their local scientists and engineers and develop nanotechnologies that can solve important problems where they logically have a large market.

The first step is to build capacity in developing countries. This needs policy changes and the realization from governments in developing countries that they cannot do all of this by themselves. The governments need to provide infrastructure and the people in industry need to realize that this is an opportunity.

Why do you propose creating the initiative Addressing Global Challenges Using Nanotechnology?

This global challenges model in health has worked because it has identified the obstacles between where we are and where we want to be. It is a good model to adapt to nanotechnology because it permits everybody involved to focus not on one particular problem but more on what are the hurdles that need to be overcome.

Who do you envision funding the initiative?

There would be federal sources of funding. What has happened here in Canada is that the prime minister proposed that 5 percent of the research and development budget be assigned to addressing problems in the developing world. Five percent is really not that much for a developed country, and if seven developed countries put together 5 percent of their R&D budgets, you would get a substantial amount that would serve to fund initiatives like the one we propose. It doesn’t have to be only for nanotechnology. But this really small percentage would have a huge impact in developing countries.

Who would allocate the money and how would they decide where it would go?

The best model is an international institution that takes into account the needs and interests of each developing country. With grand challenges, there was a call for proposals and a group of international experts who sifted through these proposals and ranked them and saw which were better according to several criteria.

Do you see the funds going to programs in the developing or the developed nations?

The developing nations. The whole point of an initiative like this one is to build capacity in the developing nations. It’s this: You don’t give a person a fish but you teach the person how to fish. That’s the whole point of the initiative.

However, one of the aspects that we also see is that if there are people in developing countries working on a certain field, say quantum dots of diagnostics, researchers in developed countries would benefit greatly if they (collaborated). The developed nations would benefit because whatever they were doing would have a greater impact. From an economic point of view, it could be marketed to a wider population.

Something that developed nations tend to overlook is there are many things to learn from developing countries — not the least of which is resourcefulness.

One thing that occurs to me is that people in developing nations creating nanotechnologies would understand how the technologies would be used in the culture. Do you see that as being important?

Yes. We have a project, not in nanotechnology but in genomics and biotechnology, studying what we call the Diaspora. Canada and in particular Toronto has a large immigrant population — 52 percent or more of the population of Toronto comes from outside Canada. What has been seen is that people from developing countries who have come to study in developed countries are in a very good position to implement technologies such as nanotechnology but in their country of origin. To apply them in such a way that it becomes socially acceptable.

It is the people from developing countries who are learning and being trained in developed countries who are in the best position to be the bridges between both worlds. They understand the needs and the motivation of their people and they also understand how things in developed countries work. That would be a good strategy to prevent the cultural clashes that arose, for example, with GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

How do you propose getting these seven nations to give up 5 percent of their R&D budgets?

Some countries traditionally view this as imperative. The Scandinavian countries and Canada have a certain penchant for helping the developing world. I can give you a very strong reason for the U.S.: If you do not want terrorism coming from developing nations it is in your best interest to help developing nations have a decent standard of living. Despite the fears that maybe developing nations would create weapons with nanotechnology, these nations would probably not make weapons under other circumstances than the ones which they are in now. I think that is quite compelling.

Similarly if you want to have a larger market for your product, you need to be sure the people have incomes to buy your products. The way to do that is through science and technology. The premise is that rich countries don’t do science and technology but that science and technology is what makes a country rich.

If you encourage the use of nanotechnology and education at all levels of science and technology, you are bound to increase the income of a certain country. That would be in the interest of everybody. It is the noblest interest, I would say, to have most of the population above the poverty line.


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