For me, the most important message from this report is that a lack of information—about nanotechnology-based products, about their possible health and environmental implications, and about the oversight processes designed to manage risks—breeds public mistrust and suspicion. This report shows that in the absence of balanced information, people are left to speculate about the possible impacts of nanotechnology. They often draw on analogies to past technologies, many of which may be misleading, such as asbestos, dioxin, Agent Orange, or nuclear power.
Consumers want more information to make informed choices about nanotechnology’s use, and they strongly support more research and safety testing before products go to market. When asked whether they felt voluntary standards for industry would be sufficient to manage the potential risks of nanotechnology, 55 percent of study participants said that mandatory government controls are necessary. An additional 33 percent were unsure whether voluntary standards would be sufficient. Government and industry need to realize that while voluntary measures may be pursued in the short term, they may not assuage public concerns over the long term.
After taking part in the issue groups we conducted, half the participants felt mostly or quite positive about nanotechnology, and 32 percent remained neutral. Traditionally, the public is willing to accept risks associated with new technologies if there is clear evidence of early, significant new benefits like low cost, highly efficient solar energy or a breakthrough treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
For nanotechnology, those significant benefits are still largely a promise. Until they are delivered, expect a certain degree of public skepticism about the next big thing.
David Rejeski Director
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Summary Of Report Results
This report presents results of a study, conducted May through June of 2005, on the public’s perceptions of government, nanotechnology, and regulation. The study was designed in response to a number of questions that emerged from a 2004 study, which found low levels of public trust in government to manage potential risks associated with nanotechnology. In this study, we wanted to learn more about why this low level of trust exists. Is there simply a general public mistrust in government or is it related to individual government agencies or particular applications of nanotechnology? More specifically, we wanted to find out what steps government and industry could undertake to improve trust.
Using a highly structured research approach, we formed groups consisting of private citizens in Cleveland, Dallas, and Spokane, and provided them with balanced, clearly written information on nanotechnology and on U.S. regulatory and policy-making bodies relevant to nanotechnology. The information packets included four sets of briefing materials to explain applications of emerging nanotechnologies, including such areas as consumer and personal product applications and products created by the convergence of biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Public Perception Of Nanotechnology
Our findings suggest the following general public perceptions, which are detailed in the body of the report and presented in table format in the Appendix.
Major Benefits Are Anticipated
The top two anticipated benefits from nanotechnology are major medical advances and improved consumer products, which accounted for 31% and 27% of all the benefits identified, respectively. General technological progress was also seen as a significant benefit, as were advances in environmental protection, lower cost energy, and improved food and nutrition.
Public Wants To be Included
The need for a voice for the public and the lack of information available to consumers about technology decision-making were strong threads throughout the study. Participants were concerned about the existence of hundreds of nanotechnology-enabled products in the marketplace and the expenditure of billions of dollars of taxpayer money on nanotech R&D without public involvement. Participants presented an overarching desire to both be informed and to have a role in decision-making. “We need to be informed,” demanded one participant while another stated that “government should not be making these decisions alone,” especially as it relates to medicine and to food.
Lack of Support for a Ban on Nanotechnology Products
One non-governmental group has advocated that new nanotechnology products be banned until further study of the potential risks. After learning about nanotechnology and its applications, 76% of respondents believe “a ban is overreacting.”
High Demand for Effective Regulation
The majority of study participants felt that voluntary safety standards applied to industry would not be sufficient to manage the potential risks associated with nanotechnology; 55% said government control beyond voluntary standards is necessary, while 33% were unsure. Only 11% felt voluntary standards would be adequate. Even given their regulatory concerns, 50% felt positive or quite positive after learning about nanotechnology and the differing roles of the regulatory agencies, while 32% remained neutral.
Low Public Trust in Government
As in the earlier study, low trust in government to manage technology-related risks was still prevalent. It appears to be related, first, to specific regulatory agencies and other entities of government, and second, to specific applications of nanotechnology. Trust in regulatory agencies seems to reflect past history with certain categories of products, e.g., the Federal Drug Administration’s difficulty with the drug Vioxx. Public trust was lowest vis-a-vis the Congress and the White House. Study participants felt political pressure has in the past interfered with protections for public safety. Regulatory agencies were thought to be trying to do their job to ensure public safety, but limited by outside pressure from providing appropriate levels of protection.
Suspicions of Industry
Past safety issues with specific products, ranging from drugs to genetically engineered crops, have led to a widespread perception that industry pushes products to market without adequate safety testing, makes too many errors affecting people’s health, and puts its own motives ahead of consumer safety. In general the participants felt there are “unscrupulous risks taken by the medical community,” and overall there exists “a race with too many mistakes.”
Specific Recommendations on How to Improve Trust
There was a surprising degree of agreement among participants on how government and industry could improve trust. These were: (1) through more testing before products were introduced and (2) the provision of more information to the public. One participant observed “[there is] a past history of failed precautions,” and most participants supported a more “thorough investigation before [product] release.”
Media Influence is Presently Low
Study participants knew little about nanotechnology prior to the study. Of those who had heard of it from one source, 22% said it was from public television or radio, and 20% indicated they had heard about nanotechnology from another person (word-of-mouth). Popular media channels seem to be having little impact on awareness, while for most, commercial news media is not a primary source of information.