Report examines differing views on US nano policies

June 23, 2009: A study by researchers from Arizona and Wisconsin indicates a gulf between the views of nanoscientists and the general public when it comes to regulating nanotechnology, mainly about risks — with an interesting twist.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, notes that the public tends to focus on benefits of nanotech in terms of end applications — everything from information technology devices to coating additives to materials. It’s the scientists, they say, who focus more on potential risks, and the economics of nanotech.

“We think that nanoscientists view regulations as protections for the public, and that’s part of the reason why they focus on the potential risks,” notes Elizabeth Corley, prof. of public policy at Arizona State’s School of Public Affairs, in a statement. The general public, meanwhile, “seems to think of nanotechnology regulations as restricting their access to new products and other beneficial aspects of nanotechnology.”

From the paper abstract:

In the absence of risk assessment data, decision makers often rely on scientists’ input about risks and regulation to make policy decisions. […] We conclude that nanoscientists are more supportive of regulating nanotechnology when they perceive higher levels of risks; yet, their perceived benefits about nanotechnology do not significantly impact their support for nanotech regulation. We also find some gender and disciplinary differences among the nanoscientists. Males are less supportive of nanotech regulation than their female peers and materials scientists are more supportive of nanotechnology regulation than scientists in other fields. Lastly, our findings illustrate that the leading US nanoscientists see the areas of surveillance/privacy, human enhancement, medicine, and environment as the nanotech application areas that are most in need of new regulations.

(Click here for the full paper)

It’s an interesting study given how little is known about nanotechnology — practically by definition, scientists and researchers are weighing heavily on discussions of regulations and risks, because many simple answers just aren’t known the deeper into the nanoworld we go. Moreover, the study finds that “economically liberal” researchers are more likely to support regulations that “economically conservative” ones — a notable difference in gauging discussions of nanotech regulations. Though, “this says less about scientists than it does about the lack of conclusive data about risks related to nanotechnology,” according to Dietram Scheufele, prof. at the U. of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

The study was based on survey responses from 363 of “the most highly cited and active” US-affiliated scientists working in nanotech, conducted in May-June 2007.


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