Nano in the eye of the beholder: New reports gauge public perception

By Candace Stuart

Sep. 9, 2005 – Public awareness of nanotechnology hovers in the angstrom range today, but that’s likely to change as nanotech’s potential translates into more products. That doesn’t automatically mean people will buy in, though.

Knowing how an informed public views nanotechnology, and how an uninformed public forms its opinions, could help pave the way toward acceptance. In two separate studies on public perceptions of nanotechnology, researchers warn that winning the public’s support will require more open engagement from industry, government and scientists.

“There are two things people are asking for,” said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The project unveiled its study, “Informed public perceptions of nanotechnology and trust in government,” on Thursday. “They want more information; they feel they are in the dark and neither government nor industry provides information. And they want more testing on environment and health (effects).”

Jane Macoubrie, the project’s senior adviser and a social scientist specializing in communications, conducted the study in May and June using 177 participants from Dallas, Cleveland and Spokane, Wash. Participants were given a pre-test questionnaire about nanotechnology and then provided written material about nanotechnology, regulatory and policy groups associated with nanotechnology, and consumer and biotech applications and products.

Participants read the material before joining in individual and group discussions as well as taking a post-test questionnaire. The study was prompted by earlier research that found low levels in trust in government’s ability to manage nanotechnology’s risks. The 2005 study was meant to better understand why trust was low and with which agencies, and to get a read on public attitudes and concerns.

“Based in their experiences, people have concerns about products that predate nanotechnology, but may be reinforced by nanotechnology,” Macoubrie said. Many participants mentioned Vioxx as an example of government and industry’s failure to protect consumers. Merck withdrew the painkiller from the market after the drug was linked to heart attacks and strokes.

Most participants believed self-regulation by the nanotech industry would not be sufficient, and more than half recommended some type of government control.

Trust in Congress’ ability to manage risk remained low in pre- and post-tests, with 63 percent of post-test respondents giving lawmakers a no-confidence vote. Some regulatory agencies edged up in post-tests, but groups that have been associated with debacles such as the Food and Drug Administration, which approved Vioxx, faired poorly.

Public trust would increase if government and industry increased the amount of testing before products went to market, the study found. More than 70 percent of participants called for more pre-launch testing, more information about choices and proof that regulations protected workers and the environment.

“Here’s an opportunity for industry to try to get it right,” Macoubrie said. Rejeski suggested that third-party testing and industry collaborations with a trusted party such as a university would also boost pubic confidence. He recommended finding mechanisms to engage the public in national policy decisions.

Public policy tends to be made in government,” he said. “The public can help solve some of these tricky policy problems.”

Macoubrie also encouraged industry to heed the public’s message. “We need to think about what the public is saying and what that means for the nanotechnology industry globally,” she added. “We need to close this gap, and take this gap seriously, between where the public thinks we are and where industry would like to be.”

Another study scheduled to be published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research discusses how an uninformed public generally will get information and draw conclusions about nanotechnology.

Dietram Scheufele, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, predicts most people will not invest the time and effort to understand nanotechnology. Instead they will be “cognitive misers” who collect as little information as needed and use shortcuts such as media portrayals to form opinions.

“This is how they make judgments,” Scheufele said. “They will still make policy decision, based on how nanotechnology is being covered. This makes sense; it’s not that relevant for them. ¿We’re all misers in certain areas and non-misers in others.”

In the paper, “The public and nanotechnology: How citizens make sense of emerging technologies,” Scheufele and co-author Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University found that in a survey of more than 700 people, about 16 percent were somewhat informed about nanotechnology. About 59 percent of the informed group said they supported nanotechnology, while only 28 percent of unaware group expressed support.

Nanotechnology stories today often appear in business and science sections or magazines, which tend to put nanotech in a positive light, according to Scheufele. The researchers argue that nanotechnology as a topic soon will migrate to the more mainstream press. The less specialized press likely will present the story in terms of a controversy, with issues framed by dueling interests that disregard scientific information.

But that is not inevitable, Scheufele said. Scientists can position themselves in this early, non-controversial stage to ensure their voices are heard in later dialogues.

“The key to successful communication about nanotechnology will be scientists,” he said. “Scientists can take a proactive role in participating in public discourse” by establishing media contacts and building a reputation as a reliable source.

Scientific reasoning may then become part of the framework that the public will use to make its decisions. In the end, Scheufele said, they still may choose against nanotechnology but the decision will be more informed.

“The outcome is less important than the process,” he said. “I want the debate to take place with all parties.”

Editor’s note: The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Pew Charitable Trusts have partnered on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The project’s study is available online at


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