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Nanotechnology Public Policy in Latin America


Many countries in Latin America have made nanotechnology a development priority in their public policy platforms. The main feature of these public policies is to provide support for nanotechnology research and development, aiming to forge ties between public institutions and universities and the private sector, to boost innovation and competitiveness. These public policies do not take into account the global context of strong capital concentration in which nanotechnologies emerge, and which makes it difficult to be competitive within the framework laid out by these public policies to develop these technologies. This paper analyzes the direction of public policy in the international context, and also suggests policy alternatives.


Nanotechnology refers to a range of techniques used to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular scale. Its importance resides in the fact that materials on the order of between 1 and 100 nanometers display different physical, chemical, and biological properties than the same materials would at a larger magnitude. Gold, which is not reactive on the larger scale, becomes reactive at the nanoscale and is used to manufacture sensors; carbon as graphite is soft, but carbon in nanotubes is harder than steel. Practically all chemicals behave differently at the nanoscale. This particularity permits vast modifications in the functionality of products. As a result, nanotechnology has come to be seen as the next industrial revolution.

Unlike previous technology revolutions, driven by power (the Industrial Revolution the invention of electricity, the internal combustion engine), information processing and transmission (ICT – information and communication technologies), or living beings (biotechnology), nanotechnology is centered on matter in a broader sense, because its potential resides precisely in the potential of harnessing new properties of materials. This is an Industrial Revolution that is permeating all economic sectors more or less simultaneously, because all sectors use some type of material, and these materials can be manipulated at the nanoscale to develop new features.

This Technology Revolution is recent, because it required the development of atomic microscopes at the end of the 1980s and the 1990s in order to precisely measure the new properties of materials, which in many cases were already known. Moreover, it was the launch of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in the United States in 2001 that spurred many other countries to begin investing in nanotechnology research and development in order to keep up. Nanotechnology is the Technology Revolution of the twenty-first century. According to the consultant Científica,

Since the US National Nanotechnology Initiative was announced in 2000 almost every developed and developing economy has initiated national nanotechnology programs. The world’s governments currently spend $10 billion per year on nanotechnology research and development, with that figure set to grow by 20% over the next three years.

Various reasons make it understandable why no country can be left out of this science and technology revolution. In economic terms, countries that do not produce their own nanotechnology are already importing nanotechnology products, in many cases without even being aware that they are doing so. This will produce an impact on the social division of labor and the formation of value chains, as well as undesired effects, such as potential health and environmental risks.

Scientifically and technologically speaking, researchers from diverse fields are tracking the latest developments and publications and are under pressure to educate themselves about these new nanosciences and technologies. The Internet, online scientific journals, conferences, and research networks are ensuring that researches can be aware of what is happening in the international science discussion, regardless of where they are physically located.

At the political level, international bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the World Bank (WB) have placed nanotechnology on their development cooperation agendas as a priority development area , alongside ICTs and biotechnology.

In light of this situation, it is increasingly important to reflect on how countries in Latin America are taking on this technology revolution.

Latin America Joins The Nanotechnology Revolution

Now well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, many countries in Latin America have set up nanotechnology research groups, while their governments have pointed to nanotechnology as a priority development area. Two trends have converged to lead to this outcome. On the one hand, the natural advancement of the physical and chemical sciences, which have been researching the properties of matter at the nanoscale since the 1990s. At least in some countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, materials science research at the nanoscale did not come about due to any specific policy in this regard. Scientific publications from the 1990s demonstrate this, although at that time the term “ultrafine particles” was more commonly used than the current nanomaterials. On the other, international organizations have exerted pressure, since the end of the 1990s, to make nanotechnology a priority area for science and technology development, together with ICTs and biotechnology.

The trend towards the homogenization of science and technology (S&T) public policy is longstanding. International institutions such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the United Nations Organization for Education, Science, and Culture (Unesco), have long promoted common S&T policies in Latin America. The WB was a pioneer in this sense, helping to fund the Millennium Project in nanotechnology. In addition, the OECD lobbied to restructure the entire science and technology sector in Mexico, while the OAS made nanotechnology a priority area in it is advising to various countries throughout the region.

This does not mean that these policies have been applied equally in all cases, but in the majority of countries, there are some attributes in common as a result of these guidelines. One example of this isomorphism is the declaration of nanotechnology as a priority development area.displays the year in which each country launched its policy to support nanotechnology or add it is a priority development area.

Not all countries have accompanied these declarations of interest with financial support, but many have done so, at least the larger of the countries. The governments of Brazil , Argentina, and Mexico  have funded research networks and multi-user labs, made available infrastructure and equipment, supported research/production clusters, and promoted competitions, frequently through public-private partnerships for nanotechnology research.

Although it is difficult to estimate public funding, analysts have cited some figures. The figure given for Argentina is generally in the realm of 50 million dollars between 2006 and 2010. For Brazil, around 190 million dollars between 2004 and 2009, as stated by the Ministry of Science and Technology, not counting funds from the states themselves, which only in the cases of San Pablo, Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro would be more than 60 million dollars in the same time period. In Mexico, estimates suggest approximately 60 million dollars between 2005 and 2010, and in Chile, 30 million dollars between 2005 and 2010.

The commonalities among the policies implemented by Latin American countries in nanotechnology matters (e.g., favoring support for the private sector, oriented towards boosting competitiveness, encouraging the creation of spin-offs from public universities) should not, however, conceal their differences. In Argentina, for example, public funding is explicitly allocated to small and medium-sized enterprises. In Brazil, there is a more diversified approach, seeking to integrate funding with national thematic laboratories, making this policy, as such, more aligned with national development strategies. In Mexico, there is a clear stance towards funding with no connection whatsoever to national development projects. However, despite the differences, there is a common orientation, in many cases the same as that promoted by international bodies, such as the OECD or the WB .

However, what is the explicit justification behind declaring nanotechnologies to be a priority development area and allocating public funding towards this field? In response to this question, there is once again a single and common response despite rather divergent realities: to raise competitiveness , Mexico , Argentina. This rationale assumes that developing sophisticated technologies (high-tech), will boost a country’s competitiveness on the international stage, which will engender development and improve welfare. However, this rise in competitiveness is no guarantee of welfare, as has been demonstrated in many other cases. Mexico, for example, saw its competitiveness rise right after signing the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and up until 2000, with a parallel increase in poverty and social divergence . The official discourse also claims that new technologies will bring with them new sources of jobs, but fail to mention that the more high-tech industries become, the fewer jobs they create. Nor does the discourse mention how this type of technology can be disruptive, leading to unemployment and the shuttering of less competitive companies, which are naturally those that employ more people. Nor does the official line acknowledge that, given the level of disaggregation and globalization of productive chains, participating in these chains in material terms does not guarantee a payoff in value received .

The essence of this Technology Revolution is that the change is happening to the way raw materials behave. It is enough to merely introduce nano-raw materials, which in material terms of mass or volume may be insignificant, but whose final product will be extremely different from the old competition. In terms of value, however, the situation is different. The value added by incorporating nanoparticles may be completely marginal with respect to the final value of the product. Although this will depend on each specific value chain, the fact remains that the final product of nanotechnology is substantially different from the traditional competition, because it incorporates a negligible amount of nanomaterials, which in terms of value, may be a minimal difference.

Already in, a financial consultant in the nanotechnology field, was estimating the next value ratio between the three main stages of the value chain pursuant to the volume of products in the market

Although these are rough estimates based on the total market, shows that the value of nanomaterials is about 1% of the final value of the product. The same consulting firm estimated that it would fall to half (0.5%) in the next ten years as nano-raw materials become cheaper and are made in mass production. One eloquent example of this concept is carbon nanotubes. The cost of one gram of carbon nanotubes has dropped from over 1,000 dollars at the beginning of the twenty-first century to less than 100 a decade later

However, despite adding very little value to the final product, the contribution of nanomaterials is crucial, as it endows the end product with a novel characteristic that can make it disruptive. Self-cleaning glass, nutraceutics, longer-lasting tires, more efficient solar filters, nano-ceramics capable of replacing glass, and aluminum packaging are all changes that are having a radical effect on conventional industries; however, they add very little value to the end product.

The fact that the value of nanomaterials is marginal with respect to the final value of the product requires a careful consideration, for each product, of how the value – and not only the material – behaves in the value chain. The received wisdom of nanotechnology development support programs is that they will boost competitiveness, but if the country in question is located in a stage of the value chain where the added value is marginal, even if they take part in producing final products with nanotechnology, they will not necessarily benefit economically from doing so. The case of the Apple iPhone is particularly fitting. It is manufactured with pieces made in various countries, but the assembler only earns 6.54 dollars on a final sales price of 169.41 dollars:

As such, participating in nanotechnology value chains does not necessarily guarantee the companies or countries in question that they will benefit from these new technologies. In order to ride the nanotechnology wave, it is not enough to merely have public policies that promote nanotechnology, even when there is funding place, if there is a lack of planning about what products, what fields, and under what conditions to develop nanosciences and nanotechnology. And in coming up with national policies it is essential to understand the international context.


The majority of Latin American countries do have research groups qualified in nanosciences and nanotechnology. Many of them have sophisticated teams and are on par with international centers of excellence.  These groups, research centers, and specialized labs sprung up over the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Nanotechnology public policy in Latin America has tended to encourage these research groups joining up with private enterprise, or even generating start-ups. The success of this sort of path is highly debatable, given the international context in which nanotechnology has emerged. Unlike what happened with ICTs or biotechnologies, the degree of capital concentration worldwide in the early 2000s, when nanotechnology burst onto the scene, was much greater than one decade earlier.

Large corporations have co-opted the principal value chains for nanotechnology. It is difficult to join a value chain without falling to a marginal spot in terms of economic benefits. Moreover, the productive orientation of large international corporations is not closely intertwined with the needs of the majority of Latin American countries, even if in some cases it could raise their international competitiveness.

Latin American countries still have quasi or fully monopolistic state enterprises in such realms as public health, energy, water, or transportation, at least in some nations. In these cases, there is the advantage of being able to set up vertically integrated production, ranging from production to consumers themselves. Research and development could be connected with production and consumption, preventing the “valleys of death” that the market generates for production. Unfortunately, this is not the path that science and technology public policy has taken.

Nanotechnology: talking points

Nanotechnology has stepped out of the shadows of the scientific world and into the public conciousness, and not without a couple of controversies already under its belt

Nanotechnology and health

In May last year, a teachers' union in Australia generated headlines and controversy across the world when it advised its members not to use sunscreens that contained nanoparticles. They were concerned that the sunscreens, which contain tiny specks of chemicals that block out the sun's rays, were not safe to be given to students.

The teachers were worried that the nanoparticles could pass through the skin and remain in the body, with possible toxic effects. Industry groups reacted angrily and said there was no evidence that the sunscreens were dangerous. Health campaigners also weighed in and pointed out that older suncreens, which the nanoparticle creams were supposed to replace, could be hazardous too, and that not wearing sunscreen at all was known to increase the risks of skin cancer.

Recently, a survey in Australia found 13% of respondents who had heard stories of risks associated with using nano-based sunscreens would consider not using any sunscreen at all. When risks are not clearly communicated, the fallout often results in more harmful behaviour.

Nanotechnology and sports

One of the first examples of nanotechnology making a difference in the world of sports was at the 2008 Olympics, where Speedo introduced a new swimsuit that could repel water and increase buoyancy. Worn by US champion Michael Phelps and others, the suit helped swimmers to set new records, but generated controversy. Some cried foul over "technological doping" – saying the suit was too much to cheat because it helped swimmers so much. And swimmers with sponsorship deals with other manufacturers felt those wearing the new suits had an unfair head start.

In 2009, the ruling body of the sport acted on the concerns when it limited the size of suits that swimmers could wear. In London this summer, the nanotech-assisted suits will be smaller, which organizers hope will make things fairer.

Experts view

It is hard to grasp just how small nanomaterials are, and so just how different nanotechnology is. If you look at one of the fine hairs on the back of your hand, that is one of the smallest structures we can see with the naked eye, and yet it is perhaps 10,000 times bigger than a nanoparticle.

Because nanotechnology operates at the smallest scales of our bodies, it is immensely powerful. We could, for example, design nanoparticles to infiltrate cancer cells and destroy them, or reengineer the capabilities of diseased livers and kidneys from the inside, cell by cell. Of course there are dangers with this approach, but when we talk about risk we have to consider the risks of not developing and using nanotechnology. Talk to anyone on dialysis or waiting for a transplant and you start to realize that there are millions of ill people for whom this technology is their best hope of a normal life.

The 21st century is likely to be the century in which we apply nanotechnology to ourselves and make it possible to reengineer the human body. This, of course, has massive social and ethical implications that we must not ignore.