Nanotechnology and public opinion

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Patterns of news coverage on nanotechnology are developing in ways that mirror issue cycles for previous technologies, including agricultural biotechnology. In particular, early coverage of nanotechnology was dominated by a general optimism about the scientific potential and economic impacts of this new technology (Dudo, Dunwoody, & Scheufele, forthcoming; Friedman & Egolf, 2005; Friedman & Egolf, 2007). This is in part related to the fact that a sizeable proportion of nanotechnology news coverage – at least in newspapers – continues to be provided by a handful of science journalists and business writers (Dudo, Choi, & Scheufele, 2011; Dudo et al., forthcoming).
Attitudes without Knowledge?
The overall positive framing of nanotechnology in news outlets is also linked to support for more research and funding among the general public (Cobb & Macoubrie, 2004; Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005). This connection between media coverage and support for nanotechnology, however, does not follow traditional knowledge deficit models (for an overview, see Brossard, Lewenstein, & Bonney, 2005). Instead, most research on public attitudes toward nanotechnology does not show an impact of media coverage on lay audiences' understanding of the technology, which – according to knowledge deficit models – would produce more positive attitudes toward the technology. Instead, most recent research has found that the driving factor behind public attitudes are various forms of heuristics or cognitive shortcuts that audiences use to make sense of the technology, even in the absence of information (Scheufele, 2006).
One of these heuristics are media frames. Frames are ways of presenting an issue that will produce particular outcomes among audiences (Scheufele, 1999). Framing is often traced back to Nobel Prize winning work in experimental psychology that examined how embedding information in particular contexts can shape people's interpretation of that information (Kahneman, 2003). When applied to mass media, framing theory suggests that even small terminological tweaks in terminology ("death tax" vs. "inheritance tax") can activate different cognitive frameworks among audiences and shift the interpretation of the technology overall (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007).
How people think about nanotechnology or what cognitive schemas they use to make sense of nano-related information, however, also depends on the specific aspect of nanotechnology that is being discussed. Nanotechnology has often been described as an enabling technology. The "nano" label, in other words, simply describes work or observations at a particular size scale. As a result, nanotechnology research bridges a diverse set of research fields and application areas.
And attitudes depend heavily on the specific area that is being discussed at any given moment. Recent national survey data, for instance, shows that people's likelihood of translating their perceptions of risks associated with nanotechnology to specific attitudes about the technology depends to a significant degree on the specific application area they think about when forming those risk-attitude judgments (Cacciatore, Scheufele, & Corley, forthcoming).
What Types of Attitudes and Cognitions Matter Most?
Virtually all national surveys tapping public opinion on nanotechnology have measured some form of knowledge or at least perceived knowledge. This distinction, unfortunately, is lost to many commentators who often conclude in a very simplistic fashion that the public knows little about nanotechnology, even if a study relies on self-reported awareness of the technology.
Empirically, however, self-reported perceptions and objective assessments of knowledge are clearly distinct. The former taps people's perceptions of what they think they know. A number of researchers, for example, have tracked perceived levels of awareness about nanotechnology (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 2006, 2007; Scheufele Lewenstein, 2005) and have found little change over time. Significantly fewer studies have actually administered objective quiz-type measures of what the public knows about nanotechnology (Lee & Scheufele, 2006). Typically, such measures include a battery of true/false-type knowledge questions about nanotechnology.
From the data that are available, we can see two trends: First, levels of knowledge about nanotechnology across the general population have remained fairly static in the last few years (Scheufele, Corley, Shih, Dalrymple, & Ho, 2009, see Online Appendix); second, we see a widening gap among education groups, with highly educated respondents showing increased learning over time, and less-educated respondents falling behind in terms of how much they know about nanotechnology (Corley & Scheufele, 2010).
Aside from cognitive variables, research on public attitudes toward nanotechnology has also explored overall attitudes toward nanotechnology. Most of this research has shown that people's views on nanotech are generally positive (Cobb & Macoubrie, 2004). Respondents who self-identify as being more aware of nanotechnology tend to show higher levels of overall support than respondents who are less aware of nanotechnology (Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005).
A second attitudinal variable that has dominated research on public reactions to nanotechnology is people's judgment about the relative risks and benefits of nanotechnology. Across studies, patterns of results suggest that those who perceive greater benefits for nanotechnology outnumber those who perceive greater risks by 3 to 1 (Satterfield, Kandlikar, Beaudrie, Conti, & Herr Harthorn, 2009). Unfortunately, previous research has relied mostly on a single item to tap these relative assessments of risks and benefits among the general public: "Do the risks associated with nanotechnology outweigh the benefits; do the benefits outweigh the risks; or are the risks and benefits approximately the same?"
A number of researchers have raised serious concerns about these measures and their potential to provide invalid assessments of risk perceptions among the general public. At a conceptual level, these criticisms have focused on at least two areas. First, responses may be biased based on response order effects. Asking respondents first whether "the benefits outweigh the risks", followed by response options for "the risks outweighing the benefits," or "risks and benefits being about equal," for instance, is a much different question than one that offers the "risks outweighing the benefits" as the first response option. Second, ingle-item measures force respondents to make subjective summative judgments about the relative importance of several risks and benefits. Such judgments, unfortunately, are often skewed, given people's tendency to remember unfavorable information about a topic better than favorable information.
Most recently, however, Binder and colleagues (Binder, Cacciatore, Scheufele, Shaw, & Corley, online first) quantified the potential response biases introduced by single-item measure or risk and benefits perceptions. Specifically, their comparisons of results from two surveys and across different measures of risk/benefits perceptions suggest that single-item measures of risk and benefits perceptions may be slanting answers toward higher risk perceptions. In particular, people perceived more benefits than risks when given the opportunity to evaluate these attributes separately, as opposed to being asked to make a quick summary judgment in a single item. Interestingly, this pattern holds both issues tested in the study – biofuels and nanotechnology.
Expert Opinions vs. Public Opinion
A growing body of research is also beginning to compare attitudes among members of the lay public to expert surveys. Most systematic surveys among U.S. nano scientists suggest that they are more optimistic than the general population about the potential benefits of nanotechnology, and – in most areas – less pessimistic about its potential risks (Besley, Kramer, & Priest, 2008; Scheufele et al., 2007). Comparisons of answers to identically-worded questions in surveys among the leading nano scientists in the U.S. and a representative sample of the U.S. population, however, showed that there were two areas in which nano scientists showed higher levels of concerns about potential risks of nanotechnology than the general public: human health, and environmental pollution (Scheufele et al., 2007).
Previous research has also examined to which degree experts opinions on nanotechnology are driven by different factors than opinions among the lay public (Ho, Scheufele, & Corley, 2010; Priest, Greenhalgh, & Kramer, 2010). Not surprisingly, much of this research shows that attitudes among nanotechnology experts are strongly correlated to their scientific judgments about potential risks and benefits. What is interesting, however, is the fact that experts' stances on stricter regulations for nanotechnology are – at least in part – driven by their political viewpoints, even after their judgments on batteries of questions about objective risks and benefits are taken into account. More conservative scientists tend to also be more opposed to stricter regulations, whereas liberal-leaning scientists tend to support them (Corley, Scheufele, & Hu, 2009).
Next Challenges
Two challenges are emerging as public attitudes toward nanotechnology develop along with the technology. The first challenge relates to a long-standing problem surrounding the development of technical innovations in modern societies: knowledge gaps. Knowledge gaps do not simply refer to different levels of understanding about a technology across social groups. Instead, the concept goes back to work by Tichenor and colleagues (Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1970) who showed that learning effects from informational campaigns were significantly higher among respondents with high socioeconomic status (SES) than respondents with lower levels of SES.
For nanotechnology, we see similar patterns emerge. Recent analyses of nationally-representative trend data (Corley & Scheufele, 2010) show widening gaps for knowledge about nanotechnology between the most and least educated groups in the U.S. In other words, as the technology evolves and has an impact on more and more areas of our daily lives, highly-educated respondents become more familiar with nanotechnology and its applications, but less educated groups fall behind and are potentially becoming less-and-less informed about nanotechnology as societal debates focus on an increasingly complex set of ethical, legal and social challenges (Khushf, 2006).
This has tremendous implications for many outreach efforts, such as nano cafes or museum exhibits, that target a more interested and informed segment of the population and may be less effective as channels for reaching disadvantaged or harder-to-reach audiences. But there is a silver lining. A closer look at the media use patterns among different SES groups shows that online sources of information about nanotechnology can help overcome knowledge deficits for low SES respondents (Corley & Scheufele, 2010), and future research will have to explore how to better utilize online communication channels to more systematically target hard-to-reach audiences (for an overview, see post from January 11, 2010).
A second challenge for researchers studying public attitudes toward nanotechnology is the role that personal values play in helping people make sense of new information about emerging technologies. Previous research has shown how religious views (Brossard, Scheufele, Kim, & Lewenstein, 2009), cultural predispositions (Kahan, Braman, Slovic, Gastil, & Cohen, 2009; Kahan et al., 2008), and views about scientific authority (Brossard & Nisbet, 2007; Lee & Scheufele, 2006) shape how people translate (mass mediated) information into attitudes toward nanotechnology. In other words, values and predispositions can serve as perceptual filters (Brossard et al., 2009) that shape information processing, and the same piece of information will be interpreted very differently by different audiences, depending on their pre-existing values and predispositions.
This role of values as perceptual filters is particularly important given recent comparisons among the U.S. and various European countries. These comparisons showed significant variation in religious views across countries and also a significant relationship between those views and attitudes toward nanotechnology (Scheufele et al., 2009). As regulators in the U.S. work with their counterparts in other countries in order to harmonize regulatory frameworks for nanotechnology, understanding the value landscape in each country will be absolutely critical for evaluating the viability of regulatory choices and restrictions. And future research will have to much more systematically examine public attitudes toward nanotechnology and its applications in an international context.
By Dietram A. Scheufele, John E. Ross Chaired Professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication in the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin. This is an initial draft of an article that will eventually become a chapter on public attitudes toward nanotechnology for Susanna Priest's new book on risk communication and public perception of nanotechnology. It's meant to be a current update and comprehensive overview of what we know (and don't know) at this point.
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