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Posted: Mar 30, 2007

Trust will be a key factor in the public's acceptance of nanotechnology

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Experts and the public generally differ in their perceptions of risk. While this might be due to social and demographic factors, it is generally assumed by scientists who conduct risk research that experts’ risk assessments are based more strongly on actual or perceived knowledge about a technology than lay people’s risk assessments. In the case of nanotechnology, surveys show that most people are not familiar with it. The public perception of an emerging technology will have a major influence on the acceptance of this technology and its commercial success. If the public perception turns negative, potentially beneficial technologies will be severely constrained as is the case for instance with gene technology. It seems plausible that the evaluation of new technologies, such as nanotechnologies, is guided by people’s theories and values. For instance, people for whom the technological revolution is associated with positive outcomes - and who are not afraid of possible negative side effects of technological progress - may assess nanotechnology applications more positively than people for whom negative effects outweigh positive effects. Researchers in Switzerland conducted two studies which examined how lay people and experts perceived various nanotechnology applications and how companies address the public's concerns.
"Our studies basically showed two clear results" Dr. Michael Siegrist explains to Nanowerk. "1) Laypeople’s perceptions of the risks associated with nanotechnology were significantly higher than the experts’ perceptions of the risks and experts have more trust in governmental agencies to protect people’s health from nanotechnology risks than the public does; 2) a substantial number of companies have no structured approach for assessing the risks associated with nanoparticulate material."
Siegrist, a senior researcher and lecturer at the Social Psychology Institute at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, is first author of a recent paper in Risk Analysis ("Laypeople’s and Experts’ Perception of Nanotechnology Hazards") and a correspondence in Nature Nanotechnology ("Risks and nanotechnology: the public is more concerned than experts and industry") that concludes that the public concerns about nanotechnology would diminish if measures were taken to enhance people’s trust in governmental agencies.
In their first survey, the researchers described 20 different nanotechnology applications in short scenarios to 375 laypeople and 46 experts. Participants assessed the risks and benefits associated with these applications on a 5-point scale.
The survey also included three non-nanotechnology applications (asbestos, cellular phones, genetically modified tomatoes). They came out as the top three hazards with the highest perceived risk. Asbestos received the highest risk ratings in both the layperson and expert samples. In the layperson sample, cellular phones and genetically modified tomatoes ranked as number two and three, respectively. Among the nanotechnology applications, sunscreen, ammunition, food packaging, and release of medication received the highest risk ratings in the layperson sample. Overall, and for each category, experts assessed the risks associated with nanotechnology applications as being much lower than laypeople did.
Nanowire nets bottom
A two-dimensional plot of the nanotechnology applications, using factor scores of "dread risk" and "distrust" as coordinates. Results indicate that the applications ammunition, biosensors, water sterilization, release of medications, surface impregnation, and food packaging have high loadings on the factors dread risk and distrust. These may be the applications most prone to be targets of public discussions about nanotechnology. (Images: Dr. Siegrist, University of Zurich)
"Our results indicate that the way the public reacts to nanotechnology in the short or midterm depends on how industry, governmental agencies, and NGOs handle the issue" says Siegrist. "Applications in the food or health domains are most likely to become controversial topics among the nanotechnology applications. The broad spectrum of potential nanotechnology applications may also pose a risk to the whole field of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology ammunition, for example, has the potential to negatively influence the general image of nanotechnology."
Even though the researchers observed substantial mean differences for the various applications, the ratings were highly correlated. In other words, some people assess all nanotechnology applications positively, whereas others assess nanotechnology in a generally negative way.
"The importance of trust for risk perception has been demonstrated in numerous studies" says Siegrist. "The present research shows that trust and confidence are also important predictors of how nanotechnology is perceived. How governmental agencies will regulate nanotechnology may, therefore, strongly influence the public’s and experts’ risk perception."
This is where the second study of Siegrist and his collaborators comes in. Based on the way they perceive risks, experts might not be inclined to initiate the risk assessments that are expected by the public. To investigate how industry approaches risk assessment, the researchers sent a questionnaire to companies that produce or apply nanomaterials.
In response to the question, "Does your company conduct risk assessments where nanoparticulate materials are involved?", 65% indicated that they perform no risk assessments, the rest performed risk assessments sometimes or always.
"Our data suggest that a substantial number of the companies have no structured approach for assessing the risks associated with nanoparticulate material" says Siegrist. "This contrasts with public concerns and may undermine public trust in the nanotechnology industry."
Since the importance of trust for the perceived risks associated with nanotechnology showed so clearly in their survey, the Swiss researchers suggest that industry should promote voluntary initiatives and regulations designed to prevent unwanted side effects. A significant negative event could have disastrous impact on trust, indicating to the public a lack of concern for public welfare.
By . Michael is author of two books by the Royal Society of Chemistry: Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology (RSC Nanoscience & Nanotechnology) and Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny. Copyright © Nanowerk

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