Nanotechnology has been projected across the world as one of the most promising of newly emerging technologies with major development-related possibilities. ‘Development’ we take here to pertain to all countries that want to address their societal problems and as a consequence are prepared to change—in Europe and the Americas, as much as in Asia and Africa. Scientists and engineers across the globe are currently engaged in a diverse range of research, ranging from exploring new characteristics of materials at the nano-scale to developing applications that use these properties such as in the fields of water, energy, and health.
India is, like many countries, investing significantly in nanotechnology development and research, as is evident in budget allocations and particularly in the formulation and execution of Nanomission by the Department of Science and Technology.
While much of the discussion around nanotechnology so far has been about the possible benefits, there is increasing attention to other important dimensions too. These include issues of risks to human health and the environment, and the need for regulatory and governance mechanisms that might help deal with the fundamental uncertainties associated with an emerging technology like nanotechnology.
The workshop aimed at discussing the question of how a country like India can steer the development of its nanotechnology research and development in such a way that primarily India’s own agenda is served, rather than merely following an international trend. This would relate to defining developmental priorities for the country, translating these into research priorities, and addressing the question of how to balance the promises of benefits against the potential risks of, for example, nanotoxicity.
These large and over-arching questions stem from a comparative research project in which such questions are also asked about Africa and Europe. The University of Hyderabad (UoH, India) and Maastricht University (UM, The Netherlands) in collaboration with several other partners in India and Africa are researching these issues as part of their project “Nanotechnologies for Development in India, Kenya and the Netherlands—Towards a Framework for Democratic Governance of Risks in Developing Countries,” funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Several PhD students, postdocs and senior researchers are part of this project.
In this workshop the Nano-Dev project presented research findings and comparative insights from India, the Netherlands, and from Africa to stimulate discussions on ‘big questions’, such as:
- How to understand the (Indian) culture of innovation?
- How to understand the traveling of nanotechnologies between laboratories and industries, between research and end-use, between academia and market?
- How to develop democratic governance of balancing risks and benefits of nanotechnologies?
The workshop succeeded to be radically inter-disciplinary with participation by prominent nano-scientists and technologists, social scientists, policy makers, research students and those with communication expertise.
Style of workshop
In the workshop we did create a space for frank and challenging discussions on various aspects of nanotechnology research and development, that included—but were not restricted to—the issues highlighted above.
The program was designed to stimulate interaction and creative collaboration to produce joint learning. Our starting point was the recognition that there are no ready-made solutions for the question of how to stimulate nanotechnologies for development, while democratically balancing risks and benefits for the people. Europe, Africa and India all face these questions, though in different ways and with different resources. All three can and should learn from each other on the governance of nanotechnologies for development.