David Kirkpatrick

December 11, 2008

More on nanotech and public perception

Man, this study is producing a lot of press releases. I’ve blogged here and here so far, and now here’s more food for thought.

The release:

New studies reveal differing perceptions of nature-altering science

Religion and culture shape views of nanotechnology

Two new National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored research studies say public acceptance of the relatively new, nature-altering science of nanotechnology isn’t a foregone conclusion. Instead, the studies indicate continued concern.

Researchers at Yale University say that when people learn about this novel technology they become sharply divided along cultural lines, while a separate study led by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Arizona State University says nanotechnology seems to be failing the moral litmus test of religion.

Federal entities are looking into safety and public acceptance issues surrounding nanotechnology because of its ability to alter matter on an atomic and molecular scale. The potential societal benefits of using nanotechnology to create new materials and devices for medicine, electronics and energy production could be huge. But the idea of creating them through molecular manipulation leaves some people apprehensive.

“Evidence shows that there is much room for improvement in efforts to communicate about the environmental, health, and safety impacts of nanotechnology,” said Robert E. O’Connor, NSF program manager for decision, risk and management sciences.

The Yale study, part of their Cultural Cognition Project, surveyed 1,500 Americans, the majority of whom were unfamiliar with nanotechnology. Researchers gave participants balanced information about its risks and benefits. Upon seeing it, study participants became highly divided on the technology’s safety compared to a group that was not shown the same information.

According to Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor at Yale Law School and lead author of the study, people’s cultural values determined how they responded. “People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe,” said Kahan. People more worried about economic inequality saw the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous.

The finding is consistent with other Cultural Cognition Project studies that show people’s cultural values influence their perceptions of environmental and technological risks. Kahan notes, “When respondents learned about this new technology, they matched their views of its risks with previously held cultural values.”

A separate study conducted in the United States and Europe indicates that people with religious views see nanotechnology as less morally acceptable, compared with people who live in more secular societies.

According to the study, the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland see the potential of nanotechnology to alter living organisms or inspire synthetic life as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies such as France and Germany, people are less likely to see nanotechnology as morally suspect.

“What we captured is nano-specific,” said Dietram Scheufele, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication. “But it is also representative of a larger attitude toward science and technology. It raises a big question about what’s really going on in our public discourse where science and religion often clash.”

“Our findings show that the public no longer just turns to scientists for answers about the science, but also for answers about its social implications,” he said. “In other words, they want to know not only what can be done, but also what should be done. The more prepared scientists are to answer both questions, the more credible their societal leadership will be on issues like nanotechnology,” said Scheufele, who co-authored the study with Elizabeth Corley, School of Public Affairs at Arizona State.

According to O’Connor, both studies highlight the need for specific public education strategies that consider citizens’ values and predispositions. “Understanding that people make decisions about technology through the prisms of their personal values will be important to take into account if we are to accurately communicate the risks and benefits of innovations like nanotechnology to the public,” said O’Connor.

“There is still plenty of time to develop risk-communication strategies that make it possible for persons of diverse values to understand the best evidence on nanotechnology’s risks,” said Kahan. “The only mistake would be to assume that such communication strategies aren’t necessary.”

It’s estimated that nanotechnology will be a $3.1 trillion global industry by 2015. Both studies can be found in the Dec. 7, 2008, issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.



December 8, 2008

Nanotechnology needs a PR campaign

I’m doing my part. I’ve been fighting fear and ignorance about the subject and even bringing up some potential drawbacks.

And then I read this. Actually this release is on the same topic as the second link up there in graf one.

The release from today:

Nanotech: To know it is not necessarily to love it

Research shows cultural biases most impact opinion on nanotech

Washington, DC – Public opinion surveys report that the small fraction of people who know about nanotechnology have a favorable view of it. This finding has led many to assume that the public at large will respond favorably to nanotechnology applications as popular awareness grows, education expands and commercialization increases.

But the results of an experiment, conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) and published Dec. 7 on the Nature Nanotechnology Web site, do not support this “familiarity hypothesis.”

The experiment found that how people react to information about nanotechnology depends on cultural predispositions. Exposed to balanced information, people with pro-commerce values tend to see the benefits of nanotechnology as outweighing any risks. However, people with egalitarian or communitarian values who are predisposed to blame commerce and industry for social inequities and environmental harm tend to see nanotechnology risks as outweighing benefits.

The study also found that people who have pro-commerce cultural values are more likely to know about nanotechnology than others. “Not surprisingly, people who are enthused by technology and believe it can be safe and beneficial tend to learn about new technologies before other people do,” said Dan Kahan, Professor at Yale Law School and lead author of the Nature Nanotechnology article. “So while various opinion polls suggest that familiarity with nanotechnology leads people to believe it is safe, they have been confusing cause with effect.”

The findings of the experiment highlight the need for any nanotechnology information and risk communication strategy to focus on message framing and to take an informed, multi-audience approach, according to PEN experts.

“The message matters. How information about nanotechnology is presented to the vast majority of the public who still know little about it can either make or break this technology,” says David Rejeski, the director of PEN. “Scientists, the government and industry generally take a simplistic, ‘just the facts’ approach to communicating with the public about a new technology. But this research shows that diverse audiences and groups react to the same information very differently.”

Because perfecting the science of nanotechnology risk communication is essential to society’s realization of the full benefits of nanotechnology itself, PEN experts believe that every major funding initiative directed at the development of nanotechnology and the study of nanotechnology risks should include a risk-communication component.

“Without investment in understanding how to explain the potential risks, as well as the potential benefits, to the public, significant innovation could be stifled,” Rejeski adds.




The study was conducted as part of a series of public opinion analyses being conducted jointly by the Cultural Cognition Project and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Previous experiments, which also examined the influence of emotion and the identity of information providers on public attitudes, can be found at www.nanotechproject.org/yale.

About Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide. In 2007, the global market for goods incorporating nanotechnology totaled $147 billion. Lux Research projects that figure will grow to $3.1 trillion by 2015.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is an initiative launched by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2005. It is dedicated to helping business, government and the public anticipate and manage possible health and environmental implications of nanotechnology. For more information about the project, log on to www.nanotechproject.org.