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Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government – Specific Concerns About Nanotechnology

Topics Covered

Background

Specific Concerns About Nanotechnology

Long-term Effects

Human Health Risks are Important

Concerns Affected by Past Problems

Playing God

The Need for Effective Regulations

Military Uses and Abuses

In My Food?

Consumer Information

People Centered Goals

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.

Specific Concerns About Nanotechnology

Study participants were invited to identify areas of concern separately from benefits. Areas of concern were written individually by study participants on a 5”x7” card, one per card, and later, categorized as they fell cumulatively into particular types of concern.

High Level of Concern about Unknowns, Regulation, and Health Risks: The three top-ranking concerns – true unknowns, regulation, and human health risks – accounted for almost 40% of the total concerns mentioned. The true unknowns label applies to concerns identified where outcomes and effects cannot be predicted by anyone, including nanoscientists. This category includes concerns such as “unknown risks and consequences,” “unintended uses,” ”how our manipulation will effect natural laws,” and “unpredictability if nano follows its own natural laws.”

Long-term Effects

Also high on the list of concerns were those relating to the need to better understand and mange potential long-term effects. Concerns identified included “thorough investigation before release,” “standards…past history of failed precautions,” “you aren’t talking about the long-term effects…why not?” and “should have substantial research on long-term effects.”

Human Health Risks are Important

Human health concerns included statements such as “cell effects that lead to cancer, like in the past,” “in medical uses it could go where it shouldn’t,” “immune system responses,” “lab-created parts that just fail later,” and “medically untested cures.”

Concerns Affected by Past Problems

Examples of past regulatory, environmental, and human health errors, given to support concerns in several categories, included Vioxx, Viagra, Phen Fen (dietary pills), DDT, asbestos, nuclear power, lead in gasoline, jet fuel contaminating military bases, and genetically-engineered foods.

Playing God

Playing God and messing with nature includes “unnatural products that cause harm,” “trying to outthink God…it won’t work,” “natural is better,” “don’t mess with nature,” “leave DNA alone, don’t play God,” and “as a consumer, I want purity, not chemicals.” While this was a concern mentioned individually by 5% of respondents, this concern was reiterated in group discussion by a small but vocal minority.

The Need for Effective Regulations

The regulatory category includes concerns for both ineffective and potentially over-restrictive regulations. Participants spoke about “politics getting into regulation,” “who regulates the regulators, like with biopharming,” “lack of regulation during development,” “must be regulated sufficiently,” “that government can be manipulated to get the effect desired,” “if too many regulate, nothing will get done,” as well as “whether it will be over-regulated” and “over regulation leaving U.S. in the dust, like with stem cells.”

Military Uses and Abuses

Concerns over military uses ranged from “bad guys with progressive tools,” to “keep our soldiers safer,” “use to fight terrorism,” and include concern about “international competition with negative effects,” as well as “a new arms race” and “no military applications…I don’t’ trust this.”

In My Food?

Nanotechnology’s use in food products, packaging, and agriculture led to food chain concerns, including “long term consumption of nano food,” “adulterated field crops,” “natural agriculture and animals,” “foods that metabolize to worsen health,” “biopharming in the wrong hands could be disastrous,” and “using live people for experiments with FDA approval.”

Consumer Information

Consumer knowledge and information concerns included “what say will the public have?” “government alone should not be making these decisions,” “who gets a say in regulation?” “lack of knowledge & disclosure to users,” “we should know when food is affected by nano and be told the risks,” and “we need to be informed when nanotechnology is in something like cosmetics.”

People Centered Goals

People centered goals for progress include concerns like “can we trust government to make decisions for the good of people and not just $$,” “moral implications of nano medicine…extent of its use and by whom?” and that we “should study moral and social guidelines more.”

Table 1. Nanotechnology Concerns

N = 426 concerns identified by 177 participants

Percentage

True unknowns

13

Regulatory concerns

13

Human health risks

13

Testing and research for safety

12

Effect on environment

10

Food & food chain concerns

7

Industry irresponsibility

7

Privacy

6

Military uses international political instability

6

Playing God messing with Mother Nature

4.5

Economic access & education

4

Consumer knowledge & information

3

People centered goals for progress

2

Taxpayer cost of development

1

Fearful people stopping good

1

Mistrust of government in general

1

Social upheaval & adjustment

.5

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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