Science is often thought to be irrelevant to the immediate and pressing needs of third-world countries. What use are high-tech devices when you are facing poverty, hunger, or disease?

An international group of 27 experts disagrees. In a recent report to the United Nations (UN), they conclude that science is critically important to improving conditions in developing countries. The report, Innovation: Applying Knowledge in Development, was prepared by the Task Force on Science, Technology, and Innovation as part of the UN's Millennium Project to tackle poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women. The panel believes that science and innovation have played a large part in alleviating poverty and driven remarkable economic growth in southeast Asia, for example, naming Malaysia and Taiwan in particular.

It is interesting that the task force included a group from the University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics (JCB), which considered the role of genomics and nanotechnology. They believe that inexpensive nanotechnologies requiring small amounts of energy and materials could have a big impact on the needs of the developing world. A number of potential applications of nanoscience are listed, some are perhaps more likely than others. These include new technologies for water treatment, disease diagnosis, air pollution remediation, and improving agricultural productivity. “Many people think that high technology is at odds with development,” says Peter A. Singer, director of the JCB. “We have shown examples where nanotechnology serves development.”

The UN report does strike one cautionary note. “Advances in nanotechnology tend to be geared toward the interests of industrial countries. Applications for cosmetics, sports apparel, and various digital gadgets do not address the pressing needs of more than five billion people in developing countries.”

This is a theme picked up in last year's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report on nanotechnology ( It notes concerns over the potential for nanotechnologies to intensify the gap between rich and poor countries and asks, “Who will benefit and, more crucially, who might lose out?” Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK's chief scientist and a thoughtful observer of nanotechnology developments, also voiced these misgivings in December's Materials Today supplement,Nano Today. “Will [nanotechnologies] be used to help provide drinking water to the poor or playthings for the Western rich?” he asks. “The glib answer might be both, but where does the emphasis lie and why?”

The JCB group is currently working to identify the top ten nanotechnologies that could help developing countries. If this leads some efforts in nanoscience to be directed toward social and environmental goals as well as market opportunities, then it is welcome.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)00686-3