Nanoscience and nanotechnology — the study and engineering of matter at the atomic and molecular scale — have recently enjoyed rapid development in both the North and the South.


In China, the growing impact of nanoscience and technology research and development (R&D) is on display in any number of ways. Publications have increased by 30–40% per year over the past 5 years. According to the Scientific Citation Index (SCI), scientists from China now rank second only to scientists in the USA in the number of articles published in international peer-reviewed publications in nanoscience and technology. The number of companies in China focusing on nanotechnology now exceeds 600. That compares to less than 25 in 1990 and just over 200 in 2000.

India, the Philippines and other Asian countries have taken steps to emulate China's efforts. Governments in these and other nations, including Mexico and South Africa, have invested in nanoscience and technology R&D, largely in fields that seek to address their nation's economic challenges. For example, India has launched a 5-year, US$220-million national strategy for advancing nanoscience and technology. Research will focus on developing a range of materials such as carbon nanotubes, nanocrystals, nanostructured metals and inorganic substances that have applications in industrial and economic development.

As the number of exciting commercial discoveries has increased worldwide, so too has the public's interest in nanoscience and technology. Such interest provides opportunities as well as challenges.

A critical question is whether research in this field will focus on providing products or services that will serve the needs of poor people in developing counties by creating, for example, super-sensitive water filters to improve access to safe drinking water, or whether it will instead focus on upscale markets in developed countries to produce, for example, stain-resistant trousers. The involvement of scientists from developing countries could help to ensure that the global R&D agenda achieves a balance between the marketplace for upscale products and services and the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals.

What is fuelling nanoscience and technology R&D? In China, government priorities, public needs and rising demand for new materials at home and abroad are among the factors contributing to advances in the field.

When it comes to building a strong foundation in nanoscience and technology, developing countries, and China and India in particular, have one distinct advantage over developed countries: they enjoy a much larger and increasingly well-educated workforce that is eager to innovate, and that demands much lower wages than their counterparts in developed countries.

In the case of China, research on ultrafine oxide particles, undertaken by the Institute of Solid State Physics and the Shanghai Institute of Ceramics in the late 1980s, spurred great interest in nanoscience and technology in China's growing scientific community. That, in turn, placed nanoscience and technology at the forefront of China's scientific and technological enterprise. Widespread use of such new techniques as scanning-probe microscopy, which allowed scientists to study single-molecule nanostructures in great depth, was another factor that helped to advance nanoscience and technology in China during the early stages of development of this new field.

For industry, researchers in China and elsewhere are exploring nanostructures to create high-performance materials. For medicine, they are turning to nanomaterials to develop new drug-delivery agents, to improve image-enhancing techniques and to develop miniaturized diagnostic devices. For the environment, they are engineering nanomaterials to extract heavy metals and organic pollutants from water and soils, setting the stage for innovative strategies for environmental remediation.

In China, India and other developing countries, such ventures are closely related to broad national strategies for improvements in environmental remediation and public health. In China, government support for nanoscience and technology currently totals about US$180 million a year.

Developing countries such as China and India have also begun to look to the growing private sector for financial support for nanoscience and technology R&D. This trend should help to add new sources of capital, and improve the prospects for public/private partnerships that combine the research skills of universities and research institutes with the entrepreneurial skills of private firms. Such partnerships will help to ease the transfer of techniques and materials that have proven successful in the laboratory for use in industry.

Advances in nanoscience and technology in the developing world have been largely dictated by the state of laboratory equipment and, more generally, the scientific infrastructure within a country. In many developing countries, the state of equipment and the scientific infrastructure have not been good.

That is why the research agenda in the developing world has largely taken its cues from research initially done in the developed world. At the same time, scientists in the developing world have not had access to a large and dynamic private sector to help transform discoveries into applications. This is especially true for microfabrications and nanodevices.

The next step for developing countries in their efforts to compete on a global scale in nanoscience and technology is to focus on efforts to promote technology transfer. That requires attention to be placed on management, marketing and gaining access to venture capital.

Developing countries, particularly large countries like China and India, have built a strong scientific foundation in nanoscience and technology. It is now time to emphasize innovation and commercialization so that nanoscience and technology can be put to use for the benefit of people and the economy.

Nanoscience and technology could help improve human health, protect the environment, and create new products and services.

Nanoscience and technology could play a central role in improving human health, protecting the environment, and creating new products and services that improve lives in ways both big and small. Universities and research institutes could contribute a great deal to such efforts by presenting unbiased assessments of the potential benefits of nanoproducts and services, and by evaluating the potential hazards that they might pose for the environment and human health.

Building broad public confidence in the safety and value of nanoscience and technology is fundamental to success. Nanoscience and technology are among the few fields where cutting-edge research can translate into immediate benefits to society. That is good news for science and societies everywhere. It provides just one of many reasons why the world needs the full and active participation of scientists in developing countries.