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Posted: December 11, 2006

Swiss are critically positive in their attitudes to nanotechnology

(Nanowerk News) Citizens are critically positive in their attitudes to nanotechnology. This is shown by a survey carried out by TA-SWISS, the Centre for Technology Assessment. The potential benefits for medicine, the environment and life’s amenities are today held in high regard. But most people say they are unwilling to buy nanotech products unquestioningly. Information and declaration are important to them.
In Switzerland today, there are no signs of a hardening of attitudes towards nanotechnologies. These new technologies are arousing high hopes and economic expectations. Even the sceptics do not rule out the possibility that nanotech research could in the future provide solutions for major problems in medicine and in the field of ecology. Independent research organisations in particular enjoy substantial support among those included in the survey. Their work should be allowed to continue without hindrance.
Call for a “Nano Declaration”
Approval of nanotechnologies is not, however, given unreservedly. Very few people who took part in the publifocus are prepared to buy and consume products containing nanoparticles unquestioningly. People are most likely to know nanotech products such as sun creams, textiles or sprays for sealing surfaces. Many of those who took part first became aware of the subject from the TA-SWISS leaflet “Know Your Nano!”. There is a considerable need for more information. Most people are worried that they might already have unwittingly bought goods containing synthetically manufactured nanoparticles. A large majority feel that a declaration should be made compulsory for this new type of product.
High hopes and serious doubts
All those who took part in the discussion rounds are able to make out the opportunities and positive potential of nanotechnology. In the medical field in particular – in the fight against cancer, for example – and in ecology – water purification and photovoltaics, for example – there are hopes of breakthroughs. But the risks cannot be explained away. People voice the greatest reservations about nanotechnologies in connection with food. They are afraid of side effects caused by nanoparticles. And above all they are worried about the notion of these tiny particles overcoming the blood-brain barrier and penetrating the brain. The environment was another subject that emerged as a cause for concern in all of the discussions.
Citizens call for transparency
Little is known as yet about the possible consequences of nanotechnology, and so citizens also refer to the many uncertainties and lack of practical knowledge that surround the new technology. Analogies are frequently made with the debates about radiation from mobile phones, asbestos and nuclear power. The crucial question is whether nanotechnology will improve their quality of life. To build up confidence in this new branch of technology, transparency is the key prerequisite. A declaration for nanotech products, as well as practical information about nanotech research projects, could certainly help in this respect. Switzerland could then maintain its leading position and make use of the lead it has on regulation. Opinions are, however, divided about whether regulation should be by legislation or by selfregulation among the protagonists.
Subtle differences in laypersons’ view
Social examination of new technologies at an early stage definitely pays off. Michael Emmenegger, Project Leader at TA-SWISS, is certain of that. He takes stock as follows: “Citizens are most definitely in a position to offer subtly different views of new branches of technology and formulate proposals on how they should be handled. Even when the experts feel that there are a number of uncertainties still to be cleared up.”
The research sector, industry and politicians cannot remain indifferent to the way the general public perceives and assesses “nanotechnologies”. Public opinion is crucial to the success of new products and to Switzerland as a research centre and business location. That was one of the reasons why TA-SWISS conducted the publifocus “Nanotechnologies and what they mean for health and the environment” (see box). The project was backed by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences Winterthur (ZHW).
Source: TA-SWISS
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