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The promise of nanotechnology

Written by  Jolien Linssen Monday, 07 March 2016 08:32

Emerging technologies are often held up as miracle interventions: by bridging the divide between the Global North and South, they could change the world for the better. Yet in the past, nuclear power, biotechnology and ICT all failed to live up to their promise. Could nanotechnology, the next big thing, make the difference? For PhD candidates Pankaj Sekhsaria, Trust Saidi and Koen Beumer, this question formed the starting point of their research. They will defend their theses on 10 March.

A nanometre is one billionth of a metre. Or, to put it differently: one strand of human hair has a breadth of approximately 80,000 nanometres. On this extremely tiny level, the physical properties of materials change radically. The secret behind nanotechnology is that these new properties can be used in a wide variety of products and processes. ‘I don’t know any other technology that could be applied in so many different ways’, says Wiebe Bijker, professor of Technology and Society. ‘Nanotechnology can be used, to name just two extremes, in cheap water filters as well as highly expensive gadgets such as smart clothing.’

Under Bijker’s supervision, Pankaj Sekhsaria (India), Trust Saidi (Zimbabwe) and Koen Beumer (the Netherlands) participated in what is known as an NWO-WOTRO integrated programme, resulting in three individual PhD theses. Their research addresses the question as to how nanotechnology could foster progress in developing countries, taking into account the risks to health and social cohesion that come with it. ‘An integrated programme starts from the idea that developed and developing countries can learn from one another, as opposed to the more traditional idea of the North offering development aid to the South’, explains Bijker. ‘International collaboration between researchers and partners in different countries is a logical consequence.’

Cultures of innovation
In India, Sekhsaria endeavoured to understand the ‘cultures of innovation’ in nanoscience and technology. ‘I visited laboratories where nanoscience and technology research and development is taking place to talk with scientists and understand the work they’re doing’, he says. ‘My main hypothesis was that different societies and cultures have different ways of doing things, which is reflected in what happens inside scientific laboratories. Through my research I’ve been able to show that societal constructs, cultural preferences, contradictions and limitations within Indian society play a role in the questions that nanoscientists choose to explore, in the solutions they end up finding, and even in the ways they carry out research.’

Sekhsaria, who describes his years of research as ‘hugely challenging and enriching’, stresses that his conclusions are not limited to India but can be translated to different countries and contexts. ‘I argue that India’s cultural, political and societal context influences its nanoscience and technology research and development – and there’s no reason why the same phenomenon couldn’t be witnessed elsewhere.’ Bijker: ‘Pankaj’s research has enabled us to draw conclusions that are more general, holding for Africa, the Netherlands and other places.’

Travelling technologies
The same is true of Saidi’s research in Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He aims to show how nanotechnologies travel from laboratories to different user contexts. ‘Usually when scientists come up with a new technology, they expect it to perform miracles when it goes out into the world’, he explains. ‘Through my empirical fieldwork, I demonstrate that technologies don’t fit perfectly and unproblematically in different societal situations. Instead, they need to be reworked, redesigned and made compatible with the local context.’

Outside the laboratory, technologies are subject to considerations that scientists wouldn’t even begin to think of, as illustrated by the case of a smart nano water filter introduced in a Zimbabwean village. Saidi: ‘You’d expect that people previously forced to drink dirty water would embrace this technology – yet they didn’t. They see water as a shared resource, so a filter designed for use inside individual households poses a threat to their social cohesion. By introducing this technology, you’re actually dividing society.’

Context always matters, says Saidi. ‘As every community differs from the next, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution or model that we can apply. Only by taking into account the manner in which end users interpret a certain technology is it possible to understand how to best deploy it.’

Beumer, finally, studied how nanotechnology is governed in India, South Africa and Kenya; three developing countries that are pursuing nanotechnology as a means of promoting development. ‘One of my main findings is that these countries have very different styles of governance, which isn’t what you’d expect based on the existing literature’, he says. ‘Not only do they have different development goals, but they also have different ideas about what development means and how to achieve it.’

In India, scientists are entitled to make important decisions about the funding of nanotechnology. In South Africa, on the other hand, such decisions are made primarily within a political framework. ‘These differences can be explained by looking at the social structure and history of each country’, says Beumer. ‘In India, with its caste system and many religions, science is viewed as neutral. For that reason, it’s seen as the key to development. The situation is entirely different in South Africa, where since the end of apartheid the government has focused on eliminating inequality. As a result, scientists only receive funding if they can make a contribution in this respect. What I argue is that nanotechnology can only benefit development if it connects to local traditions and institutions.’

Looking back on their international collaboration, the three agree it has been a joyful experience. ‘The geographic diversity brought a lot of excitement and enriched the research’, Saidi says. ‘It helped us to take on different perspectives,’ Beumer adds, ‘and in this manner we’ve been able to learn a lot from each other.’ Bijker shares the enthusiasm of his PhD candidates. So does he think nanotechnology can fulfil its promise to bridge the gap between the Global North and South, where earlier technologies could not? ‘That’s one of the most important questions one could ask, but I don’t have a definitive answer. Nanotechnology is unique in the breadth of its applicability, and besides, the world has changed vastly over the past fifty years. Today, more than ever, countries in the Global South are willing to take their destiny into their own hands. Seen in this light, it’s likely they’ll use emerging technologies like nanotechnology for their own purposes. So yes, I’m optimistic.’

Pankaj Sekhsaria will defend his PhD thesis ‘Enculturing Innovation: Indian engagements with nanotechnology’ on Thursday 10 March at 12.00. Trust Saidi will follow at 14.00 with his thesis ‘Travelling Nanotechnologies’. Lastly, Koen Beumer’s defence – ‘Nanotechnology and development: Styles of governance in India, South Africa, and Kenya’ – will start at 16.00. 

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