Public perceptions about nanotechnology: Risks, benefits and trust
Cobb, Michael D.
Journal of Nanoparticle Research
Vol. 6, Num. 4
Cobb and Macoubrie report findings from "the first representative national phone survey of Americans perceptions about nanotechnology (N=1536)." Public opinion is still forming, and knowledge of nanotechnology is sparse. Americans react positively to nanotechnology based, most likely, on their generally positive attitude toward science.
This article reports is one set of findings in a tripartite study "designed to methodically answer this and other questions by comparing public perceptions across: (1) an uninformed condition (the national survey), (2) a moderately informed condition (quasi-experimental discussion groups around the country), and (3) a fully informed condition (two three- month long Citizens Technology Forums, based on the Danish- model Citizens Consensus Conference)." [For part two, see Macoubrie in this list]
Among their findings are the following: first, and as expected, "more than 80% of survey respondents indicated that they had heard 'little' or 'nothing' about nanotechnology." As indicated above, people were generally positive about nanotechnology. "For the entire sample, a sizeable percentage (38%) thought risks and benefits would be about equal, and slightly more (40%) predicted that nanotechnology would produce more benefits than risks, while only half that many (22%) said risks would outweigh the benefits." In their discussion, Cobb and Macoubrie say "[ve]ry few Americans report being angry about nanotechnology, and a solid minority reports feeling worried. Indeed, about four out of every five respondents claim not to be worried at all. Conversely, about 70% said they are very or somewhat hopeful about nanotechnology."
Risk/benefit perceptions were probed more closely. They are affected by race, education, familiarity with nanotechnology and trust in corporate leaders. As regards education, "[w]hile knowledge does not affect feeling angry or worried, it strongly shapes feeling hopeful (Table 10). Less knowledge about nanotechnology is associated with far less hopefulness than more knowledge. Almost 27% of low knowledge respondents reported not feeling hopeful about nanotechnology, but just half that percentage (13%) of high knowledge respondents said they feel that way. Conversely, while just 27% of low knowledge respondents claim to be very hopeful, 44% of high knowledge respondents say the same thing."
Trust in the business leaders promoting nanotechnology, also probed closely, is affected by familiarty with nanotechnology, anger about technology, and exposure to Prey. "Slightly more than 60% of respondents said they had 'not much trust' in business leaders ability or willingness to minimize risks to humans. Although a sizeable percentage claimed to have 'some' or 'a lot' of trust (40%), fewer than 5% of the sample said they had 'a lot' of trust." Cobb and Macoubrie were surprised "that knowledge did not condition trust in business leaders. While trust is low in general, familiarity led to greater trust, while exposure to Prey lowered it. Also of interest, those who reported having less trust also reported feeling more angry about nanotechnology."
In general, Cobb and Macoubrie found that "respondents expected benefits to be more prevalent than risks, and they reported feeling hopeful about nanotechnology rather than worried. Their most preferred potential benefit of nanotechnology is 'new and better ways to detect and treat human diseases,' and they identified 'losing personal privacy to tiny new surveillance devices' as the most important potential risk to avoid. The most discouraging aspect to the data is respondents lack of trust in business leaders to minimize nanotechnology risks to human health." One unexpected finding is that benefits other than security or products matter to the survey respondents. "Most interestingly, even after 9/11 and the war in Iraq, increased national security benefits of nanotechnology still ranked less highly than environmental benefits." They also learned that a nanotechnology "arms race" was "the risk of most concern to those who had read Prey or discussed it with someone who had."
They conclude: "the bottom line seems to be that openly discussing the critical issues by giving accessible balanced information (not presently competing beliefs, but the agreed-upon principles relied upon by scientists), is probably the best way to prevent uninformed opinion from coalescing around negative perceptions based on improbable events." Overall, these data indicate that while Americans do not necessarily presume benefits and the absence of risks, their outlook is much more positive than not.