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Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government - Full Study Results

Topics Covered

Background

Full Study Results

General Attitudes and Knowledge

Low Awareness of Nanotechnology

Varied Sources of Knowledge

Generally Positive Attitude towards Nanotechnology

Benefits will Exceed Risks

Little Support for a Ban

Respondents’ Interests in Nanotechnology Benefits

Background

In just a few short years, nanotechnology has catapulted from being a specialty of a few physicists and chemists to a worldwide scientific and industrial enterprise. But little is known about the technology’s possible health and environmental implications.

At this critical juncture, it is important that leaders from industry, government, the science and engineering community, and other sectors develop a better understanding of what the public wants and expects in terms of the oversight of these new and emerging technologies.

This article is extracted from a report, “Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government,” that provides an in-depth look at what Americans know and do not know about nanotechnology. It offers a view of the nano applications and products people think are most important. It examines who Americans trust most to manage nanotechnology’s potential risks. And it highlights what particular concerns citizens may have about nanotechnology’s use.

Full Study Results

This section of the report summarizes the findings and uses examples of participants’ comments or statements of concerns/benefits to illustrate the results. Data tables of full results are given in the Appendix.

General Attitudes and Knowledge

Low Awareness of Nanotechnology

As in the 2004 studies, most people participating in the study had little initial awareness of nanotechnology. Answering the pre-study questionnaire, 54% professed to know almost nothing, 17% felt they knew something about nanotechnology, and 26% said they knew a little. Asked if nanotechnology is predicted to become another industrial revolution (true), 75% said “don’t know” and 24% answered “true.”

Varied Sources of Knowledge

Study participants were also asked about the sources of their information on nanotechnology, if they had any prior knowledge. When respondents identified only one source of knowledge, 22% said they had heard about nanotechnology from public television or radio, and 20% said they had heard about nanotechnology from another person. 14% had heard of nanotechnology from commercial television or radio news, 10% from science fiction, 8% from magazines and 8% from newspapers. If respondents had heard of nanotechnology from two sources, 28% mentioned magazines, 17% hearing from another person, 14% from science fiction, 11% from trade journals, and another 11% from public television or radio.

Generally Positive Attitude towards Nanotechnology

Initial attitudes towards nanotechnology prior to the study were investigated by asking “are you quite positive, mostly positive, neutral, mostly negative, or don’t know concerning your feelings about nanotechnology?” Initially, 38% were neutral, 13% were mostly positive, 41% answered “don’t know,” and less than 9% were either quite positive or mostly negative. After the study, 50% were mostly or quite positive, 32% remained neutral, 13% were mostly or quite negative, and 3% answered “don’t know.”

Benefits will Exceed Risks

Perceived risks of nanotechnology versus nanotechnology’s benefits were also tested in pre- and post-study questionnaire. After the study, 41% said the benefits should exceed the risks, 30% believed the risks and benefits would be about equal, 15% expected risks to exceed benefits, and 14% answered “don’t know.”

Little Support for a Ban

After they had learned about nanotechnology, participants were asked: “Should nanotechnology be banned until further study of possible risks?” 76% of the respondents said “a ban is overreacting.” An additional 16% said “don’t know;” 8% supported a ban of new nanotechnology products.

Respondents’ Interests in Nanotechnology Benefits

After reading informational materials on one of the four emergent applications areas of nanotechnology, study participants were asked to identify up to 5 areas of highest interest regarding the potential benefits of nanotechnology. These areas were written individually by study participants on a 5”x7” card, one benefit listed per card. The benefits of interest were clustered together as types of benefits (e.g., “treat cancer,” “reduce overuse of antibiotics,” “a cure for Alzheimers,” “could lead to a cure for HIV/AIDS,” are grouped in the benefit category of major medical uses). See the Appendix for more information on the analytic method used to summarize concerns and benefits.

1. Medical Applications of Greatest Interest: Study participants named as the top type of benefit major medical advances possible through nanotechnology (31% the of benefits identified). This included a wide range of possible applications from new diagnostic methods to treatments for cancer and diabetes.

 2. Better Consumer Products: The second most frequently mentioned benefit group (27%), the consumer product category, contains potential benefits like “less toxic paint coatings,” “toothpaste to fill cavities,” “make life easier,” “trash bags that biodegrade” and “stain resistant clothing.”

3. General Progress. Benefits related to general progress account for 12% of benefits identified (general advancement - 5%, human race progress - 2%, and general knowledge advancement - 5%).

4. Environmental Protection: Environmental protection ranked fourth (8%) in benefits mentioned and includes such things as “less contaminated water,” “stop damage to the planet,” and “reduce waste, use less materials.”

5. Safer and Better Food: Food and nutrition benefits, the 5th most frequently named benefit (6%) includes “safer food,” (from smart packaging), “more nutritious food,” and the ability to “feed the world.”

6. Energy, Economy, Electronics: Energy benefits, the economy, and improved electronics and computing each garnered 4% of benefits envisioned.

7. Benefits to Soldiers, Security. Military uses and national security were mentioned in 3% of benefit comments.

Table 1. Benefits Of Nanotechnology

N = 349 benefits named by 177 participants

Percentage

Major medical uses

31

Consumer products

27

General progress*

12

Environmental protection

8

Food and nutrition

6

Economy, jobs

4

Energy

4

Electronics, computers

4

Military uses and national security

3

Advancing international welfare

1

*Knowledge advancement 5%, Advance society 5%, Human race progress 2%

Primary author: Jane Macoubrie

Source: “Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government” report. Please see original report for reference sources.

For more information on this source please visit Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Date Added: Sep 11, 2005 | Updated: Jun 11, 2013
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