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Policy Master Class on Nanotechnology for Development (Nano4D): Policy, Ethics, Law and Regulation

The African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), the National Commission of Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI), Kenya,   the University of Gondar (UoG), Ethiopia, and Science Technology and Information Centre (Ethiopia) are pleased to announce that they are now accepting applications for a three-day intensive course on Nanotechnology for Development (Nano4D) in Africa.


Nanotechnology is heralded as the technology ushering in ‘the next industrial revolution’, ‘the post-industrial world’ and ‘the age of mastery’ marking the transition to and beyond the upper end of ‘the age of discovery’. Understood as a general purpose enabling technology, the impact of nanotechnology is set to propel the world towards the realisation of a scenario of a sci-fi era. As a scientific field, nanotechnology has transformed itself from a virtual non-existence two decades ago into a discipline in its own right and is now touted as a mega discipline, an ‘über-science’, ‘a super-discipline’ and a ‘proto discipline’. In terms of the market share, if we go by some predictions, sometime before 2030, most technology will have become either nanotechnology or will be comprised of nanotechnology. The discreet march of nanotechnology is rightly dubbed as ‘a tsunami’- a metaphor that captures the stealth and transformative potential of the technology.

The developing world and Africa in particular needs to revisit its science, technology and innovation (STI) policies in light of the developments triggered by nanotechnology with a clear purpose to accelerate and keep pace with its relentless advance. Africa has to overcome the numerous policy distractions that used to discourage developing countries from engaging high-technoscience. The challenges of engaging high-technoscience are no longer insurmountable and opportunities that were unavailable during the development of previous technologies such as biotechnology are now available to developing countries. The consequences of failure to seize this opportunity would be extremely detrimental to developing economies as the technology is set to introduce incredibly disruptive applications. For Africa and the rest of the developing world, an early engagement with the technology is crucial to avoid the grim prospect of relegation to irrelevance to the global economy.

Course Objectives:

The aim of the course is to provide participants with a comprehensive interdisciplinary overview and understanding of nanotechnology as a key transformative enabling technology. Starting with an overview of the rise of nanotechnology and its phenomenal spread to the four corners of the globe, the course introduces the specific issues and debates surrounding nanotechnology to identify and analyse its broad implications to development, sustainability, global competitiveness as well as its ethical, legal, policy and societal ramifications.

The debate on nanotechnology has now just begun in Africa, with most African countries currently in the early stages of adopting a nanotechnology policy – a process that this course will help facilitate by examining the emerging policy issues. The course aims at creating a cadre of nanotechnology advocates and concept champions that will initiate and run the African nanotechnology debate judiciously while dealing with the challenges of nanotechnology policy making.

Expected Outcomes:

On the successful completion of the course, participants will have

  • gained a thorough knowledge of the foundational concepts of nanotechnology
  • developed an understanding of some of the new advances lying at the interface of nanotechnology and economic development,
  • appreciated the important role nanotechnology plays in the convergence of emerging technologies,
  • gained a thorough knowledge of the impact of emerging nanotechnology in society;
  • be able to contribute to the design of policy, law and regulation on nanotechnology and the technologies converging around it,
  • examined the risk issues arising from nanotechnology and how it is handled by regulators at the local, national, regional and global level
  • have gained basic skills to engage on further study of the social science aspects of nanotechnology and to contribute to the debate on nanotechnology policy in their respective jurisdictions and individual responsibilities
  • become familiar with the resources for acquiring information of specific interest to their specific fields of research and policy analysis
  • recognized the common themes of the debate on nanotechnology risk management

Target Audience:

There are no prerequisites for the course. The course should be of interest to regional and national policy makers (across sectors); university faculty and researchers (across the natural, social, economic and political sciences); the private sector; civil society, NGOs and consultancies, staff of international organisations.

Course Duration: 

25 hours of presentation and group work including social events (to be announced)

Course Delivery:

The course will be given through a combination of presentations, lectures, interactive discussions, reading assignments   

Course Venue:

University of Gondar, Ethiopia: http://www.uog.edu.et/en/

Fee structure:

International: 2000 USD covering tuition, accommodation, airport transfers, meals and refreshments, training materials, social events (excluding air tickets)

National: 1000 USD covering tuition, accommodation, meals and refreshments, training materials, social events


To Apply:

Please send your CV and Cover Letter to: Dr. Hailemichael Teshome Demissie h.demissie[at]acts-net.org by July 15th, 2015

Module 1: Foundational Concepts of Nanotechnology

The course introduces the basic concepts of nanotechnology and its historical development, current state and future timeline. The sub-disciplines of nanotechnology, the convergence of technologies, and the centrality of nanotechnology in this convergence are the topics that will be covered in this module. The module is intended as an introduction to equip participants of disparate backgrounds and experiences with the basic concepts of nanotechnology.   

Module 2:  Nanotechnology Policy and Regulation

The rapid pace of the development of nanotechnology has made the task of policy makers difficult. Designing appropriate policy and governance devices has been slow and incoherent.  Some jurisdictions even drifted to the position that no bespoke or special policy or regulation is required for nanotechnology. The blanket science, technology and innovation (STI) policy was instead to be applied to nanotechnology regardless of the specific particularities of the technology.

However, the excuse that nanotechnology does not require a specific policy did not stand the test of time as country after country came up with their respective nanotechnology initiatives and programs articulating their nanotechnology development policy. In just a decade more than 70 countries have put in place National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNIs) following the US model, with caveats of their own. The desire to promote and support nanotechnology development for purposes of achieving global competitiveness is reflected in these initiatives. All other issues appear to have been subordinated to this dominant policy stance predicated on the big benefits that nanotechnology promises.

The module critically reviews and analyses nanotechnology policy as codified in policy instruments and as implied from practices in such areas as funding priorities, product promotion and similar other activities carried out by governments, regional and international organisations and firms. The module explores and analyses the challenges of nanotechnology policy making at the national, sub-national, regional and global level.                                                                                                                 

Module 3: Nanotechnology, Uncertainty and Risk Governance

The environmental, health and safety issues relating to the development of nanotechnology are the issues that rival the issue of the promotion of the technology in terms of priority setting by policy makers. Building on the lessons from the GM fiasco, risk governance issues are handled in such a way that the mistakes and lost opportunities that the GM debate caused are not repeated. Unlike the GM debate, the debate on nanotechnology has not resulted in painting the technology black. It has even brought the GM debate into a different perspective whereby GM technology could progress without the hindrance from the negative press that it was attracting.

This module examines the environmental, health and safety issues of nanotechnology and the challenges of policy making in risk regulation emanating from the uncertainty of what are conceived as risk. It will review the risk assessment exercises carried out on nanotechnology. The module in particular discusses the precautionary principle that has been widely used as a risk management principle in the international environmental protection regime.

Module 4: Nanoethics

Nanotechnology raises fundamental philosophical, ethical and societal issues. The promises of nanotechnology range from the end of poverty to the end of death, from enhanced humans to superhuman intelligent robots. Whether existing philosophical thought developed around the world of mortals is sufficient to deal with issues arising from immortality or unusual longevity is being intensely debated among ethicists and philosophers. Apart from these sci-fi like scenarios, the ethics on nanotechnology is tasked with the resolution of issues that biotechnology and other technologies have brought to the fore: issues of global equity in the face of burgeoning inequality, privacy, ownership of science and technology, and the many other issues that modern technology has spawned.

The module introduces the emerging discipline of nanoethics in its wider sense as the social science of nanotechnology and critically interrogates what ‘doing ethics’ consists in. It explores the major topics of current nanoethics debates. It will analyse the relationship with the preceding disciplines like bioethics and cyberethics and emerging disciplines like synthetic bioethics and machine ethics. With this background, the module will narrow down the ethical issues to the issues that are of immediate or near-term concern and relates the discussion to the other modules on poverty, climate change, global equity and other pressing issues of the present time.

Module 5 Nanotechnology, the MDGs/SDGs, the Green Economy, Nature and Sustainability

The MDGs are phasing out with or without success and are now being succeeded by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that essentially retain the previous goals with emphasis on sustainability.   While the MDGs did not specifically mention nanotechnology, scholars did not lose time in nominating it as providing solutions towards attaining the goals. An influential article by Salamanca-Buentello et al made an elaborate correlation of the MDGs with the potential solutions nanotechnology promises to offer. Credit is attributed to this work for having ignited ‘a lively debate’ on the issue of nanotechnology and development. It was also remarkable for it was a critique of existing international development policy that consistently downplayed the role of science and technology in development. Such correlation of technological solutions to development challenges was a direct stab on international development agencies that were exhibiting, as a prominent scholar pointed out, ‘outright hostility to proposals that sought to integrate innovation in development cooperation strategies’.

The correlation of nanotechnology solutions to the MDGs requires little or no revision with the introduction of the SDGs. The realistic benefits of nanotechnology in terms of not only achieving sustainability but also in environmental remediation and in undoing the damage that climate change and industrial pollution have caused are immense. Early on the UN Millennium Task Force on the MDGS put emphasis on nanotechnology as ‘particularly important’ for the sustainability relevance of the technology underlining that nanotechnology products will be ‘extremely productive, as energy producers, as materials collectors, and as manufacturing equipment.’

The module elaborates on the sustainability issues that nanotechnology raises and its potential for an accelerated implementation of the SDGs.  It will revisit the correlation worked out by Salamanca-Buentello et al in light of the SDGs and examine the weaknesses of their proposal especially the piecemeal approach of focussing on specific applications that plays down the general purpose nature of nanotechnology.

Module 6: Nanotechnology Public Funding, Business and Commercialisation

This module reviews the global funding landscape to highlight the significance nations and firms attach to nanotechnology R&D. By 2010, some $400 billion has been spent across the globe with an estimated $150 billion in corporate and private funding. Over the 2001-14 period, U.S. Government funding of nanotechnology was almost $20 billion placing it among the largest U.S. civilian technology investments since the Apollo Moon-landing program. The funding allocated by the U.S. Congress in 2012 was close to $1.857 billion - four times the amount when the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was established in 2001 with a budget of $464 million. The avalanche of funding in countries and regions like China, the EU, Russia, Japan, India, and other developed and developing countries is no less impressive.

Betting on the huge returns that nanotechnology is thought to offer, the investments around the globe are increasing along with the rapid commercialisation of products using various innovative strategies. The emerging economies are in the catch-up game with wide open windows of opportunities to leapfrog. The module will look into the funding patterns in the developing world and in particular it examines the opportunities and challenges that developing countries face in the funding and commercialisation of nanotechnology and nanotech products.

Module 7: Nanotechnology in Africa

With the exception of a handful of countries, nanotechnology research and even nanotechnology policy have yet to take off in Africa with many countries ‘at the lowest level of demonstration of interest stage’ with no financial or other significant resources committed. Recognised as one of the ‘enabling and strategic technologies’, nanotechnology research in Africa is far below the world average.  The state of nanotechnology R&D in Africa calls for a proactive engagement by African nations to commit resources and move attention to this new and fast growing field.

Africa has the opportunity to develop its nanotechnology research capacity using the capabilities in the pivotal countries that have developed nanotechnology R&D. South Africa is one of the countries that has a world class nanotechnology research infrastructure and it is developing its capabilities using talent from all over the continent.  South Africa has taken on board its status as the continental leader in nanotechnology and has pledged to direct the technology to tackle African problems. It has several collaborations with African countries on multilateral and bilateral basis. The networks under the auspices of the AU-NEPAD framework provide the basis for Africa-wide science and technology collaborations reinforced by the more focused regional arrangements such as SADC. Through the network established with South Africa, African countries are included in the ‘invisible college’ loosely linked to the other networks of South Africa like IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) and ESASTAP (European South African Science and Technology Advancement Programme).

The module reviews the various measures African countries are taking to tap into the opportunities that such networks afford and the particular activities that each country is undertaking by way of engaging the nanotechnology revolution.

Reading list

  • Cameron, Nigel and Mitchell, Ellen (eds), Nanoscale: Issues and Perspectives for the Nano Century, Wiley& Sons Inc.   
  • Brownsword, Roger, 2010, ‘The age of regulatory governance and nanotechnologies’ in Hodge, Graeme et al (eds), International Handbook on Regulating Nanotechnologies, Edward Elgar
  • Demissie, Hailemichael, 2008, ‘Taming Matter for the Welfare of Humanity: Regulating Nanotechnology’ in Brownsword, Roger and Yeung, Karen (eds), 2008, Regulating Technologies: Legal Futures, Regulatory Frames and Technological Fixes, Hart Publishing
  • Drexler, K.Eric, 2006, ‘Nanotechnology: From Feynman to Funding’ in Hunt, Geoffrey and Mehta, Michael (eds), 2006, Nanotechnology: Risk, Ethics and Law, Earthscan
  • ETC Group, 2008, Downsizing Development: An Introduction to Nano-scale Technologies and the Implications for the Global South, United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS)
  • Feynman, Richard, 1960, ‘There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom: An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics’ available athttp://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/feynman.html
  • Salamanca-Buentello, Fabio, et al, 2005, ‘Nanotechnology and the Developing World’, 2:5 PLoS Medicine
  • Schummer, Joachim, 2007 ‘The Impact of Nanotechnologies on Developing Countries’ in Allhoff, Fritz, et al (eds), 2007, Nanoethics: Examining the Societal Impact of Nanotechnology, Hoobken, NJ:Wiley
  • Sparrow, Rob 2007, ‘Negotiating the Nanodivides’ in Hodge, Graeme, et al (eds), New Global Frontiers in Regulation: The Age of Nanotechnology, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.
  • Sunstein, Cass, 2005, Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle, Cambridge University Press
  • Uldrich, Jack, 2006, Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big, Platinum Press