Communicating nanotechnology

(Nanowerk Spotlight) The benefits of new technologies, whether they are novel medical treatments, innovative ways of generating energy, or new approaches to improve farm yields, almost always come with some new risks as well. In the emerging stages of a new technology – as is the case with nanotechnologies today – the public usually is either unaware or uninformed. This leaves a lot of room for extreme opinion makers to either hype or vilify all or aspects of the new technology. As risk perception and acceptance of a technology go hand in hand, risk communication is a key instruments in informing a largely unaware public.
Not surprisingly, experts and the public generally differ in their perceptions of technology 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.
Nevertheless, whether the risks are real or not, 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 is not surprising that a new study found that, in general, nanoscientists are more optimistic than the public about the potential benefits of nanotechnology. What is surprising though, is that, for some issues related to the environmental and long-term health impacts of nanotechnology, nanoscientists seem to be significantly more concerned than the public (see: "Some nanotechnology risks worry scientists more than the public").
Arguing that risk communication on nanotechnologies requires target-specific approaches, a group of researchers in Germany advocate the development of communication strategies that help people to comprehend nanotechnology, to differentiate between the fields of application and to gain an understanding of the cause and effect chains.
"This approach prevents people from feeling powerless and being at the mercy of a technology which they can neither control nor understand," Johannes Simons, a researcher at the Institute for Food and Resource Economics at the University Bonn, tells Nanowerk. "Providing information is not enough. Information must be offered in such a way that it helps interested people to be informed about nanotechnology in spite of their limited knowledge about engineering and natural sciences."
Writing in a paper published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research ("The slings and arrows of communication on nanotechnology "), Simons and his co-authors recommend a broad approach. "Even if people gain more insight into the concept of nanotechnology and its different fields, the problem of information overload and ambiguous information remains. Therefore, it is important to involve trusted institutions in the risk communication process. This could help people to accept the information because they do not suspect the communicator of having some hidden interests or of deceiving them with misleading information."
Based on studies that were done in Germany, and comparing them with findings of other surveys conducted in the United States and Australia, the team addresses the general problems of risk communication on nanotechnology.
In addition to a literature analysis, the authors draw on a qualitative study and a standardized questionnaire used in Germany in a project of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment ("Public Perceptions about Nanotechnology"; pdf download).
Simons points out that the results of various surveys back the hypothesis that nanotechnology is a technology which is indeed widely accepted but not when it is linked to food, and that the attitude to nanotechnology is driven by determinants other than knowledge.
"Given the lack of knowledge and the growing distribution of products based on nanotechnology, public attitudes may suddenly change when news of risks is disseminated" he says. "Nanotechnology may no longer be perceived as a friendly technology but as an all embracing threat."
As mentioned above with regard to food, the overall positive perception of nanotechnology does not hold for all areas of application. Even though there is hardly any concrete knowledge about risks, there are different degrees of rejection depending on the application area. The questionnaire used by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment addressed the acceptance of nanotechnology in different consumer products and the willingness to buy them. According to the report, the results provide evidence that people use typical schemata to evaluate products and to decide whether to buy them or not: "Acceptance depends primarily on the areas of application. Differences exist in relation to the distance between the nano products and the human body. The closer the nano products come to the body, the lower the level of acceptance. If products based on nanotechnology enter the body, then acceptance falls markedly." Interestingly though, in a medical context, it is accepted that nanotechnology acts within the body and there is is perceived as a positive.
Simons and his colleagues note that in an environment of information overload and gaps in knowledge about nanotechnology, people are faced with the challenge of assessing whether the risks are serious and real. "People know from other fields of discussion that information on the relevance of risks differs considerably between different stakeholders and that even science does not speak with one voice. If people wish to decide whether to take part in the public debate or vary their purchasing behavior, then they face the problem of dealing with imperfect, contradictory information. Therefore, trust in the institution providing the information plays a key role in the perceived credibility of that information."
We have covered this issue in a previous Spotlight ("Trust will be a key factor in the public's acceptance of nanotechnology"). A key message here is that for consumers and citizens, it is highly relevant who provides the information. Target-oriented communication should take this into account.
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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