Nanotechnology Wins Public Approval

Perceived Benefits Outweigh Risks, Says UC Study

A recent meta-analysis proves that the public doesn’t sweat the small stuff, especially if it’s nanotechnology. The extremely small-scale science, which could revolutionize the medicine, electronics, and energy industries, has met overwhelming public favor, according to research conducted by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

CNS-UCSB is a national research and education center, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency, which highlights the societal impacts of nanotechnology.

Entitled “Anticipating the perceived risks of nanotechnologies,” the study was published last Monday in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. It took data from 22 surveys conducted in North America, Europe, and Japan, consolidating the results.

“Public perceptions are very important because they are pretty predictive of public behavior and response,” said Barbara Herr Harthorn, director and principle investigator for CNS-UCSB. “We’re trying to gauge how the public may respond to specific characteristics of these new technologies. It’s not predictive, we would never say that, but it could help anticipate public response.”

Of those surveyed in the compilation representing 23 countries, respondents who considered the benefits of nanotechnology research to outweigh the risks prevailed 3 to 1. But, according to Harthorn, the positive response is not the most significant finding of the study.

“The surprising part is that, across all these surveys, 44 percent of the general public is not sure,” she said. “But the fact that a very large minority is not sure means that those judgments are still in the making. It means we don’t know which way things will go.”

Public indecisiveness towards nanotechnology can be attributed, she said, to the lack of media coverage as well as the failure of non-governmental organizations to keep the public better informed. This uncertainty provides a red flag for policy makers and researchers, indicating that public opinion is in a vulnerable state. In order to gain trust regarding nanotechnology innovations, Harthorn cited honesty as the best policy.

“It’s important to understand that, although the benefits of such technology is prevailing in a lot of different public contexts, there’s also a big chunk of the public out there who have not made up their minds,” Harthorn said. “It matters how policy makers communicate, how transparent they are, and how they’re letting the process unfold.”


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