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Posted: June 21, 2007
Trust and communication: keys to public acceptance of nanotechnology
(Nanowerk News) Since the media first picked up on nanotechnology towards the end of the 20th Century, reports have, in turn, presented it as the solution to all of the planet's problems, from disease to climate change and energy supply, or spoken of nanorobots taking over the world, the dangers to health and the environment of nanoparticles, and the military's interest in new nanotechnologies.
Following an initial rush of press reports that first raised expectations to new heights, and then warned of the dangers of nanotechnology, coverage has been more modest in recent years. The result, inevitably, is limited public knowledge and understanding of nanotechnology.
Speakers at session at the EuroNanoForum 2007, taking place in Düsseldorf in Germany, gave an overview of what various surveys have established regarding societal perceptions of nanotechnology, and offered advice on how to deal with scepticism.
According to Ineke Malsch, CEO of Malsch TechnoValuation in the Netherlands, nanotechnology is not regarded in a particularly negative light by the general public. She cited a Eurobarometer study on biotechnology, which found that 40% of respondents believed that nanotechnology would improve quality of life over the next 20 years. Some 5% of respondents were negative towards nano, but around 44% had never heard of it.
While the exact figures vary, this overall trend stands in other surveys quoted by Dr Malsch and her fellow speakers. A survey in the US found that 53% had not heard of nanotechnology.
Torsten Fleischer from the Karlsruhe Research Centre spoke of a common desire among those surveyed to be better informed about nanotechnology. A focus group established by his team found a high level of curiosity, and a wish for more transparency from research and industry, government safeguards, and the publication of results from independent product tests.
'People want to be informed, they want to be heard, and they want to be involved in debates about nanotechnology,' said Dr Fleischer.
The focus group (selected randomly from the Karlsruhe region) had some knowledge of nanotechnology, and in particular of microsystems, car glass coatings, cancer therapies, and potential breakthroughs in medicine, energy, the environment and generally 'making everyday life easier'.
But some members of the focus group had been influenced by previous scares, and referred to asbestos, genetic engineering and fine particle emissions as factors that increased their concern about nanotechnology. The concerns cited most frequently related to food, health and the environment.
Dr Fleischer spoke of how the perceived purpose of a nanotechnology application is an important factor in how the public responds to it. This means, for example, that there are generally fewer concerns about technologies intended to solve health or environmental problems.
Dr Fleischer also drew attention to trust. Surveys show that the general public is more likely to trust scientific advice coming from independent bodies rather than industry players or the government. 'People will accept that there are uncertainties and limits of knowledge. These will be accepted when they are admitted and communicated,' said Dr Fleischer. 'But when people cannot judge the content of a message, they judge the messenger. Trust is key.'
Comparing attitudes at a more international level, Dr Malsch found that surveys suggest Europeans are more risk-averse than Americans when it comes to nanotechnology. Both Europe and the US focus much more on safety than is the case in India however. The President of India, Dr Abdul Kalam, has actively promoted nanotechnology in lectures, and has said that it will contribute to India's energy independence by 2030. He has even spoken of the potential of nanotechnology to enable interplanetary transportation.
While the Indian Parliament did discuss the risks attached to nanotechnology in 2005, the attitude in India towards nanotechnology is generally optimistic, with no ethical questions being posed, and no public opinion surveys.
In Europe, the focus has tended to be on practical applications, mainly for industry. In the US, the vision is slightly more long-term, and more revolutionary, particularly from the US military's point of view. In India the approach is even more revolutionary. Europe's approach could be termed 'evolutionary', according to Dr Malsch.