Nanotech Database

Article Title:
Laypeople's and Experts' Perception of Nanotechnology Hazards.

Siegrist, Michael

Journal Information:
Risk Analysis
Vol. 27, Num. 1


Siegrist et. al. investigate the differences between the public's and expert's opinions on nanotechnology. They begin with a brief review of other researchers' work and explain their focus on the public's attitude toward specific technologies. "In the present research, the psychometric approachwas adapted to determine which nanotechnology applications are likely to be acceptable to the public and which nanotechnology applications are likely not to be acceptable." They began with the assumption that laypeople will be influenced by their general attitudes towards technology while experts were more likely to rely on knowledge about a technology when making risk assessments. They used short scenarios to present nanotechnology applications and asked participants (from the German-speaking part of Switzerland) to assess the risks and benefits associated with these applications. Then 42 experts from Switzerland, Germany and Austria were also contacted and surveyed.

The questions about perceived risks had participants put nanotechnology in a context of other risky products, which they rated from asbestos (most risky) to skis (least risky). Nanotechnology used in sunscreen, ammunition, food packaging and cancer-treating applications fell in the upwards range down to the middle.

Among the factors influencing this ranking in individuals was "dread risk," a set of health-related fears, and "distrust" of governmental agencies responsible for regulation and control of nanotechnology. Lay people were most moved by "dread risk." Experts were influenced by "dread risk" and by distrust of governmental agencies responsible for regulation and control. Women perceived greater risks than did men. Within the public, those who trusted technology generally feared nanotechnology less than those who did not. Overall, laypeople saw more risk in nanotechnology and had less trust in government agencies than the experts did. Both perceived the same level of benefit.

They conclude, "Lay people use different cues to assess the risks association with nanotechnology than experts." Siegrist et. al. suggest that researchers should distinguish between trust (belief that there are shared values) and confidence (belief in an outcome) for a better understanding of public attitudes. Further research is necessary "to understand how social processes might influence the perception and acceptance of nanotechnology." This research should include industry and governmental agencies.