Nanotechnology and the hope for a more equitable world : a mixed methods study

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In this dissertation I explore nanotechnology’s foreseen implications for the global South by asking: to what extent does nanotechnology offer hope for a more equitable world? Overall, I find that nanotechnology presently offers little hope, based on its failure to demonstrate a reflexive response to the legitimate requirements of equitable development. My original contribution to knowledge is in placing nanotechnology’s emergence within a broad historical and contemporary global context whilst developing and testing an interpretive framework through which to assess relevant claims. Furthermore, I establish greater clarity about the nature of global engagement with nanotechnology research and development and explore a range of perspectives, from within both the South and North, regarding nanotechnology’s foreseen implications for global inequity. Through a review of the secondary literature I identify four key themes around which to question nanotechnology’s implications for a more equitable world, namely: understandings, innovative capacity, technological appropriateness and approaches to technological governance. To consider nanotechnology in relation to these themes, I use an exploratory mixed methods approach, consisting of two sequential phases. In order to establish the ‘state of play’, I first assess quantitative data surrounding national engagement, research participation and nanotechnology patenting. To explore matters more deeply, in the second, largely qualitative phase, I analyse the perspectives of 31 Thai and Australian ‘key informants’, supported by surveys of 24 Thai nanotechnology practitioners. Through my research I find that there is agreement about nanotechnology’s common characteristics but that, simultaneously, there are substantially different ways in which it is conceptualised. The result is a large variation in opinion surrounding various issues such as the expected entry costs and infrastructural requirements of nanotechnology research and development. Whilst there is evidence of widespread engagement and feasible entry points for some Southern countries into the budding fields of research and development, innovative capacity is shown to be increasingly centralised and disengaged from ‘the local’, although the emerging gaps are as much South-South as North-South. In terms of appropriateness, nanotechnologies are seen as offering numerous technical advantages, but any associated benefits are set against numerous imponderables relating to risks and implications, as well as economic imperatives that can mean nanotechnologies are oriented away from Southern needs. In terms of governance, Southern approaches are found to largely focus on supporting innovation and managing risk at the expense of meaningful public engagement. Overall, an increasing concentration of capacity and influence, simplistic hype that obfuscates key criteria of appropriateness and a largely ‘managed’ process of public engagement with predetermined desirable outcomes suggest that nanotechnology is likely to maintain and possibly amplify the inequities stemming from existing forms of technological innovation, such as biotechnology. Furthermore, debates surrounding nanotechnology and development remain so polarised that mainstream reflexive engagement seems unlikely. However, whilst nanotechnology presently offers little hope for a more equitable world, I conclude that there is interesting new ground to explore at ‘the edge’, such as through ‘open source nanotechnology’ and other equity-driven practices. I argue that such boundary areas may allow nanotechnology to embody a process of ‘reflexive pluralisation’, leading to a more equitable world by revealing paths for innovation that are autonomous yet responsive to external change and opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation - de-linked from national economic growth yet meaningful to people’s lives. The field could then, as Schumacher proposed in 1973, blossom ‘a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and the beautiful’.
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