Grenoble — Nanotechnology is a promising field, but a lack of regulation means there is uncertainty over the safety of its implementation, particularly in developing countries. This week I received some unexpected insights on nanotechnology and its relationship with industry in different parts of the world. I have been visiting GIANT (Grenoble Innovation for Advanced New Technologies), an interdisciplinary alliance of research institutions in France devoted to promoting scientific development and building links between academics and industry.
Due to their scientific complexity and high research and development (R&D) costs, nanotechnologies have so far been generally available only to industrialised countries. But according to Caroline Gauthier, a senior professor of management and technology at Grenoble School of Management, part of the GIANT cluster, "large firms are today designing affordable solutions to address the so-called 'bottom of the pyramid'".
In other words, to thrive outside the saturated market of industrialised economies, nanotech multinationals are trying to reach the untapped pool of poor countries.
"Big companies are not only developing cheaper products, but they are [also] shaping brand new business models targeted at emerging economies. Though whether this will help developing nations or harm them is difficult to say at this stage," says Gauthier.
Grenoble's technology alliance is investing increasing energy and money in nanotech R&D, and in technology transfer, so I was surprised that one of its members acknowledged the field's uncertainty.
"It's a difficult balance between applying the precautionary principle and allowing for scientific potential," explains Gauthier. "At the moment, we are not able to fully evaluate all the potential consequences that these new technologies may have, for example on the environment, but also on animals or the human population." She says that some of the chemical components in nanotechnology may turn out to be difficult to control and may become dangerous to consumers and manufacturers.
At the moment, there is "no specific regulation" for nanotech, she adds.
According to Gauthier, informal international regulation of nanotechnology isn't in the hands of public bodies or governments. Instead, it is large private companies that make the rules because they have the power to influence international markets.
Gauthier thinks that developing countries are more vulnerable than developed ones to the lack of statutory regulation on nanotechnology's implementation.
"The leading R&D firms normally stick to ethical practices voluntarily adopted among competitors when they work in developed countries." But they have more freedom not to apply these practices - or to test new ones - in developing countries, she says. This is because in developing countries there can be a lower awareness of the safest ways of deploying nanotechnology.
"There is no choice any more," she says. "Public institutions will have to cooperate with the private sector in order to set a code of conduct for nanotech implementation."