lacking concrete knowledge about nanotechnology,
most Americans hold a generally positive view of
the emerging science and believe the technology's
potential benefits outweigh its perceived risks.
At the same time, most Americans do not trust business
leaders in the nanotechnology industry to minimize
potential risks to humans.
Those are some of the key findings of a study conducted by North Carolina
State University researchers in the first nationally representative survey
designed to gauge the public's perceptions about nanotechnology. The telephone
survey polled a random sample of 1,536 adults in the continental United
States in the spring of 2004 and is part of a larger research project studying
public perceptions of nanotechnology that is funded by a $135,000 grant
from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
More than 80 percent of those polled indicated they had heard “little” or “nothing” about
nanotechnology, and most could not correctly answer factual questions about
it. However, despite knowing very little about the science, 40 percent
of respondents predicted nanotechnology would produce more benefits than
risks. Another 38 percent believed risks and benefits of nanotechnology
would be about equal, and only 22 percent said risks outweigh the benefits.
Dr. Michael Cobb, assistant professor of political science at NC State
who designed the survey and analyzed its results, says the findings suggest
the public's positive views of nanotechnology are likely rooted in Americans'
positive views of science in general. Cobb served as one of three principle
investigators for the project, along with NC State faculty members Dr.
Patrick Hamlett, associate professor of science, technology and society,
and Dr. Jane Macoubrie, assistant professor of communication. A report
of the team's findings has been submitted to the NSF and will appear in
the next Journal of Nanoparticle Research.
“The results of the survey suggest that while Americans do not necessarily presume
benefits and the absence of risks associated with nanotechnology, the general
public's outlook is much more positive than negative,” Cobb says.
Nanotechnology refers to the emerging science of manufacturing materials
that are measured in nanometers – one-billionth of a meter in size, which
is much smaller than the head of a pin. A pin head is 1 million nanometers
wide. Although nanoscience research is still in its infancy, many predict
this technology will have a tremendous impact on everyday life. By manipulating
atoms and molecules to create new and smaller devices, scientists believe
nanotechnology will revolutionize areas such as health care, microelectronics
and defense. Critics, however, are concerned about the adequacy of current
regulations and oversight of the technology, and they point to recent studies
suggesting that nanoparticles could be toxic to humans.
Although the science has many unknown social, economic and environmental
implications, survey respondents reported feeling “hopeful” about nanotechnology
rather than “worried” or “angry” about it. Approximately 70 percent of
those surveyed said they were “somewhat” or “very” hopeful about nanotechnology,
while 80 percent said they were not worried at all about the science. Only
5 percent said they felt angry about the science.
Cobb says the generally positive emotional responses to nanotechnology
are significant because emotions are potentially better predictors of behaviors
and opinions regarding unfamiliar issues. If respondents thought nanotechnology
would displace American workers, for example, they might react angrily.
Instead, Americans appear to be more attentive to its potential benefits
and are therefore hopeful rather than worried.
Respondents were also asked to choose the most important potential benefit
from nanotechnology from a list of five options. A majority (57 percent)
cited “new and better ways to detect and treat human diseases.” Despite
nanotechnology's potential to deliver “cheaper, longer-lasting consumer
products,” only 4 percent of those surveyed identified that as the most
important benefit. Sixteen percent selected “new and better ways to clean
up the environment”; 12 percent chose “increased national security and
defense capabilities”; and 11 percent identified ways to “improve human
physical and mental abilities” as the most important benefit.
In choosing which potential risk from a list of five was the most important
to avoid, most respondents (32 percent) picked “losing personal privacy
to tiny new surveillance devices.” Others wanted to avoid “a nanotechnology
inspired arms race” (24 percent); “breathing nano-sized particles that
accumulate in your body” (19 percent); “economic disruption caused by the
loss of traditional jobs” (14 percent); and the science-fiction scenario
of “the uncontrollable spread of self-replicating nano-robots” depicted
in Michael Crichton's novel, Prey (12 percent).
Despite the overall positive perceptions of nanotechnology and its potential
benefits, most Americans reported they were distrustful of business leaders'
ability or willingness to minimize risks to humans. Sixty percent of those
surveyed said they had “not much trust” that business leaders would minimize
risks to humans. Less than 5 percent said they had “a lot” of trust, while
35 percent claimed they had “some” trust. Respondents who were less trusting
were also more likely to think nanotechnology's risks are greater than
its benefits. Cobb says the lack of trust in business leaders is the most
pessimistic outlook for future public reactions toward nanotechnology.
“Americans' lack of trust in business leaders could present a serious obstacle
to the successful promotion of nanotechnology, especially should an accident
occur,” Cobb says.
As part of the survey, Cobb also examined how much respondents' attitudes
could be influenced when presented with positive or negative information
about nanotechnology. Respondents were presented with different arguments
about nanotechnology – some highlighted risks and others highlighted benefits.
Other respondents heard a balanced mix of positive and negative arguments,
while a control group did not hear these messages about nanotechnology.
Cobb found that positive and negative arguments resulted in only a slight
change in respondents' perceptions of the benefits and risks of nanotechnology.
People who received information highlighting potential risks thought nanotechnology
would be more risky, but still not more risky than beneficial. Those who
received messages about the potential benefits were slightly more likely
to see nanotechnology as beneficial. The positive or negative arguments
never caused a complete reversal in opinion and rarely produced a dramatic
shift in perceptions. Cobb says he was surprised the frames didn't create
a more substantial shift among respondents.
“Framing effects can be quite large when respondents know little about a subject
because they are more likely to rely on the information you give them,” Cobb
says. “Most studies of persuasion find that messages about risks are especially
powerful. It's therefore surprising that these arguments didn't move people more
than they did.”
Dr. Michael Cobb, 919/513-3709
Chad Austin, News Services, 919/515-3470
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