Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government - Issues and Increasing Public Trust

Topics Covered

Background

Trust in Regulatory Agencies, Political Entities, and Industry

Low Initial Awareness of the Role of Government Agencies

Low Trust in Congress and the White House

Regulatory Agencies Fare Better

More Information Changed Trust Levels

Worse News for the Congress

Trust in EPA, OSHA, CPSC, and CDC Increased

Trust in FDA and USDA Not as Certain

Strategies to Increase Public Trust in Nanotechnologies

Voluntary Standards Insufficient

More Safety Testing and Information Needed

Tracking Risks of Products on the Market

Interest in Public Information and Education

Consumers Want More Information

Lack of Information Breeds Suspicions

No Information on Long-term Effects

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.

Trust in Regulatory Agencies, Political Entities, and Industry

One purpose of this study was to discover more about the sources of low trust in government in relation to nanotechnology. The 2004 study had found low levels of trust, largely based on experience with earlier technologies, in which situations arose where too little knowledge of products later led to environmental and human health problems. Examples given in 2004 included asbestos, dioxin, lead paint, Prozac accumulating in bodies of water, PCBs, and Agent Orange.

To determine if low trust in government is related to any specific entity, questions in both the entry survey questionnaire and the post-test were asked in relation to different regulatory agencies: “Even if there are risks with nanotechnology, I trust the (…..) to effectively manage these risks.” The agencies and political entities tested for association with low trust were the Congress, White House, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Congress and The White House were included simply to include a wide variety of political entities that might affect nanotechnology policy and regulation. After participants had read about nanotechnology applications and regulatory responsibilities, as well as completed other parts of the study, the trust questions were asked again in order to measure trust in regulatory entities related to nanotechnology.

Results concerning trust in government indicate that low trust is related specifically to (1) particular federal agencies, and (2) to specific applications of nanotechnology. There also were a number of other interesting findings:

Low Initial Awareness of the Role of Government Agencies

In the pre-test (the questionnaire given prior to reading informational materials on nanotechnology and regulatory agencies), 33% to 46% said they did not know if the FDA, EPA, USDA, White House, or Congress, etc., would effectively manage risks. This uncertainty changed in the post-test, after participants received information on both nanotechnology and regulatory responsibilities.

Low Trust in Congress and the White House

Congress and the White House received lower initial trust responses compared to regulatory agencies: 40% and 38% ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ these entities could be trusted to effectively manage any risks, while 25% and 29%, respectively, agreed or strongly agreed that these entities were trustworthy.

Regulatory Agencies Fare Better

Regulatory agencies received higher levels of agreement that they would effectively manage any risks: 37% initially trusted OSHA, 38% trusted CPSC and 39% of participants initially agreed they would trust CDC to effectively manage risks.

More Information Changed Trust Levels

After learning about nanotechnology and regulatory agency responsibilities, many study participants in the post-test moved away from the “don’t know” category. The directions of these changes, however, varied.

Worse News for the Congress

In the post-test answers, Congress fared worst on the question of trust: 63% disagreed or strongly disagreed that Congress would effectively manage any risks (27% agreed or strongly agreed that Congress would not; 10% said “don’t know”). In the post-learning answers, the White House fared better than Congress. Still, 43% of participants disagreed or strongly disagreed that the White House would effectively manage any risk (31% trusted the White House, in the post test, while 12% said “don’t know”).

Trust in EPA, OSHA, CPSC, and CDC Increased

Trust in a number of agencies rose after study respondents knew more about their responsibilities and about nanotechnology. 46% trusted CPSC; 45% trusted EPA; 50% trusted CDC; 46% trusted OSHA. Trust in OSHA is notably ambivalent in comparison to other agencies, however, as 40% also do not trust that agency to effectively manage any risks.

Trust in FDA and USDA Not as Certain

Agencies whose trust figures were lower after citizens learned about nanotechnology and regulatory responsibilities were FDA (43% did not trust and 13% don’t know, while 44% do trust) and USDA (45% did not trust, 16% don’t know, while 39% do trust). In the discussion part of the study, concerns about FDA regulations were raised in all 12 groups. “FDA should not let companies put all kinds of stuff in food” commented one respondent. Medical products were frequently given as examples where important risks emerged years after product release. In addition, participants spoke about their low trust in FDA as related to perceived influence from Congress and industry, which they believed could undermine regulatory protections. Taken together, the evidence points to FDA, and to a lesser extent, USDA, as significant nanotechnology regulatory concerns for citizens.

Explaining more about public trust are the comments participants made about this issue in the group discussions. The group moderator synthesized these comments about the regulatory agencies in this conclusion: “Many participants trust the average agency employee to be honest and hardworking, but see the upper levels of agency management to be susceptible to political pressure and political control.” Despite mixed-to-negative views of some regulatory agencies, a substantial proportion of participants also expressed that they “are glad the agencies exist, acknowledge their past contributions to society, and felt that the agencies at the very least are doing the best they can.”

In the individual-level concerns expressed, participants further illuminated their feeling that politics negatively affects public safety. That “legislators try to undo environmental protections,” is one example.

Strategies to Increase Public Trust in Nanotechnologies

We also asked survey questions concerning ways government could work to increase public trust and whether people believed industry self-regulation would be sufficient.

Voluntary Standards Insufficient

The majority of study participants felt that voluntary standards applied by industry would not be sufficient. 55% said government control beyond voluntary standards is necessary, while 33% were unsure; 11% felt voluntary standards would be adequate.

More Safety Testing and Information Needed

There was strong agreement among participants concerning the most important ways government and industry could work to increase public trust. 71% of top choices were for increased safety tests before products go to market, supplying more information to support informed consumer choices, and demonstrating how current regulation is sufficient to protect the environment and workers.

Tracking Risks of Products on the Market

“Better tracking risks related to products already on the market” was the 4th-highest ranking choice for ways both government and industry could work to increase public trust.

Interest in Public Information and Education

A strong thread of concern about public information is woven throughout the survey and group discussion data.

Consumers Want More Information

Increasing consumers’ ability to make informed choices was the 2nd most preferred way our respondents said either government or industry could help to enhance the public’ trust. In other words, public information is a highly preferred mechanism either industry or government should employ to increase public trust.

Lack of Information Breeds Suspicions

Group discussion stressed the lack of public information over and over again. The group facilitator noted that, “The lack of public notification and information about the market status of nanotechnology products was also a major concern of these participants…The public not getting enough information is viewed as an integrity issue since it creates a suspicion of government lying and cover-ups. A strong minority opinion held that it is the public’s responsibility to get involved and educate themselves…The key element to building trust between regulatory agencies and the public is open access to information, as well to separate the regulatory process from political control.”

No Information on Long-term Effects

The moderator observed that “Participants were disturbed that so little information about long-term health effects of nanotechnological products, particularly consumables, is available even though products are coming out on the market. This was true of environmental effects as well.” One respondent keyed in on this as a concern: “You aren’t talking about the long terms effects and what is known. Why?”

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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