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DOI : 10.2240/azojono0110

In the Public Eye: The Early Landscape of Nanotechnology among Canadian and U.S. Publics

Edna Einsiedel

Submitted: August 10th, 2005

Posted: December 30th 2005

Topics Covered

Abstract

Background

Awareness of Nanotechnology in the UK

Exploring Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology in the USA and Canada

Methods

Results

Technology Optimism

Awareness and Assessments

Confidence in the Oversight of Nanotechnology

Attitudes toward and Expectations for Nanotechnology

Views on Governance

Conclusions and Policy Implications

Acknowledgement

References

Contact Details

Abstract

Nanotechnology is an emerging technology which has already begun to attract investor, media, and government attention and is in its formative stages in terms of the public imagination. Based on national surveys in the U.S. and Canada, this study reports on public awareness and early perceptions of this technology. Results show early optimism for nanotechnology and expectations of societal benefits. These views are influenced by individual characteristics such as degree of civic involvement; perceived attributes of the technology; as well as institutional factors, including confidence in regulatory institutions. While initial attitudes at early stages of technology development tend to be unstable, it is expected that over time, these perceptions and attitudes will crystallize and will continue to provide an important window into how technology is successfully (or unsuccessfully) embedded in society.

Background

The next big technology is commandingly small – but is expected to underpin the next industrial revolution. Nanotechnology has been described as “an all-embracing term for various aspects of science and technology involved in the study, manipulation and control of individual atoms and molecules – making it possible to build machines on the scale of human cells or create materials and products with ‘nano-scale’ structures conferring highly desirable properties.” [1]

It is still early days in the public arena for nanotechnology but already, the skyrocketing public and private investments in this technology, [2] and increasing media attention[3] are early indicators of nanotechnology’s promise and potential. Business Week’s March 2005 cover story on nanotechnology predicted  that sales of nano-incorporated products would rise from $12.98B in 2004 to an estimated $507.74 U.S. in 2010. [2]

Stakeholders have shown early interest in commenting on this technology, with some suggesting a moratorium.[4]  At the same time, with a look over their shoulders at the biotechnology experience, nanotechnology champions have shown greater interest in the nature of the public sphere early on, including examinations of early public representations of this emerging technology [5]  and encouragement of societal dialogue (see www.nanologue.net).

Awareness of Nanotechnology in the UK

For example, the British Royal Society commissioned a study on public perceptions of nanotechnology (hereafter, “NT”)  in the UK which found the British public to have limited familiarity with the technology – only three in ten (29%) said they had heard of NT. Of this group, only one in five (or six percent of the total respondent base of 1005) was able to provide some description or definition.[6] The most common description provided centred on miniaturization, or technology on a very small scale. The media was typically the most frequently mentioned source of this awareness about NT. [6]

Exploring Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology in the USA and Canada

In this study, the views of Canadian and US publics were explored.  Despite this early stage in the technology’s development, publics were not reluctant to express their expectations and concerns. Research on public judgments on biotechnology under conditions of low familiarity and uncertainty show attitudes to be unstable. [7] We can postulate that these public views are reasonably based on experiences with other technologies and existing mental maps which help to fill in the blanks for projections about new technologies. This “availability heuristic,”[8] allows a snapshot at this early stage which is expected to vary over time with more information, more experiences, social interactions, external events, and other potential influences.

The following questions were explored in this study:

•        What are the levels of awareness on and familiarity with nanotechnology?

•        How is NT assessed with respect to perceived risks, benefits, and moral acceptability?

•        How much confidence is associated with scientific and regulatory systems in overseeing this technology? What factors explain the extent of public confidence?

•        What are the policy implications of these findings?

Methods

Interviews were conducted by telephone during a three-week period in January 2005.   Fieldwork was carried out by a commercial research firm. A sample size of 1200 randomly selected adults was used in the US and a random sample of 2000 was used in Canada. The difference in sample size was accounted for by the larger question set in Canada involving a longer list of new technologies. The larger sample size allowed for use of split samples for particular technologies. The sampling error for a sample size of 1200 is 2.8 percent while it is 2.2 percent for an N of 2000. This means that in theory, the results should differ by no more than plus or minus three (or two) percent from what one would find from talking to every adult Canadian (or American).  As with any survey, non-sampling errors can arise from measurement validity.

Results

Technology Optimism

In order to provide a comparison across a variety of technologies, respondents were asked to provide an initial assessment of their general optimism (or pessimism) toward seven technologies. These included hybrid cars, computers and information technology, stem cell research, biotechnology, nanotechnology, cell phones and GM foods. Choices of these technologies were guided in part by the on-going interest in tracking particular technologies (in this case biotechnology and GM foods), by the coverage of several applications in this survey wave (including stem cell research and nanotechnology), and to provide a set of more familiar technologies as anchoring points of comparison (computers and information technology, cell phones, nuclear power).

As shown in Figure 1, the majority in both countries are technology optimists; that is, most of these technologies are seen “to improve our way of life in the next 20 years”, as opposed to having no effect or making things worse. The marked exceptions are nuclear power and GM food.

Canada

AZoNano - Nanotechnology - Technology optimism for Canada

USA

AZoNano - Nanotechnology - Technology optimism for the USA

Figure 1. Technology optimism.

Nanotechnology, as a new technology that most are not familiar with, enjoys the benefit of the doubt in this initial instance.  An earlier study examining optimism for a similar set of technologies among Europeans and Americans showed the latter to be greater technology optimists than their transatlantic counterparts.[9] This study found that in 2002-2003, half of US respondents said NT would make things improve in comparison to only three in ten Europeans. Interestingly, in this same study, an analysis of media coverage during the preceding several years demonstrated more emphasis on NT’s benefits in the US than in the UK newspaper.[9]

Awareness and Assessments

Nanotechnology was introduced to survey respondents in the following way:

Nanotechnology involves the application of science and engineering at the atomic scale. It involves the construction of tiny structures and devices by manipulating individual molecules and atoms, which have unique and powerful properties. These structures can be used in medicine and biotechnology, in energy and the environment, and in telecommunications. Some examples of nanotechnology include the use of molecules to enable the production of drinking water by extracting salt from seawater, the use of implantable surgical devices that can measure things like blood pressure on a continuous basis, or the use of special nano-molecules in fabrics, like wrinkle-resistant pants.

The choice of an appropriate description for the technology was based on the need to provide one that was reasonably accurate but was also balanced against the requirement of accessibility of the description to the general public. This description was provided at the point where a series of questions on the technology was about to be presented to the respondent. A contextual caveat is important here: because the respondents have now been provided with this description of what the technology is about, this framing context will provide a more specific understanding of the parameters around public views on this technology.

Awareness of NT was gauged on three dimensions: whether respondents were familiar with, had been exposed to, and had discussed the technology. US respondents were more likely to indicate familiarity, with a significant minority – four in ten – saying they were somewhat or very familiar. Among Canadians, about a third had the same view. About four in ten in both countries said they had had exposure from reading, seeing or hearing something about the subject. Only a quarter in both countries said they had discussed the subject with anyone. (Table 1)

Table 1.  Awareness of nanotechnology

Awareness

Canada

USA

Familiarity: (somewhat, very familiar)

35%

42%

Exposure: Have you read, seen, or heard (a little to a lot)

38%

40%

Discussion:  Have you ever discussed NT (% yes)

24%

27%

Given the limited awareness and familiarity, there are indications that publics in both countries are giving the technology the benefit of the doubt, with at least half suggesting they see moderate risks but substantial benefits. (Table 2). The cautiousness Canadians have for this technology is reflected in their judgment about its moral acceptability, with almost the same numbers saying they find NT morally acceptable as those maintaining it was morally questionable (46 and 42 percent, respectively).

Table 2. Perceptions of benefits, risks and moral acceptability.

Awareness

Canada

USA

Benefits

 

 

 

Moderate

36%

37%

 

Substantial

51%

49%

Risks

 

 

 

Moderate

51%

49%

 

Substantial

16%

13%

Social responsibility

 

 

 

Questionable

42%

33%

 

Morally acceptable

46%

54%

In the British study for the Royal Society, this moral dimension in NT assessment was also in evidence and was explored further in focus groups. The discussions illustrated further this sense of moral discomfort which was tied to associations with not being “natural”. In this sense, respondents were suggesting changes that do not necessarily occur in nature but were manipulations of nature; it also reflected the theme of “playing God” and carrying out something  contrary to ethical norms.[6]

At the same time, Canadians are less optimistic than Americans about the economic benefits they project for this technology, with close to six in ten expecting modest or no significant benefits. Only about half of U.S. respondents share this view. As for expectations of major benefits, four in ten U.S. respondents (42%) and slightly over a third of Canadians (36%) expected “major benefits” to flow from this technology. 

Confidence in the Oversight of Nanotechnology

Two types of questions were posed to respondents to assess their confidence in oversight for this technology: a more specific one on the safety and regulatory approval systems and one that was geared to confidence in scientists, positing the technology’s being “in safe hands”. (see Figure 2).

AZoNano - Nanotechnology - Confidence in nanotechnology oversight for Canada and the USA

Figure 2.  Confidence in nanotechnology oversight.

Regulatory system confidence: How confident would you are say you are in the safety and regulatory approval systems governing NT?

Confidence in scientists: In terms of the scientists who are involved in research of these technologies, on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is not at all confident and 5 is extremely confident, where the mid point 3 is moderately confident, how confident would you say you are that nanotechnology is in safe hands? 

A rating scale was provided where 5 was described as ‘extremely confident’, 1 was not at all confidence. Figure 2 shows percent of respondents choosing “4” or “5” on this scale.

The difference in response to these two questions – evident among respondents in both countries -- is striking. There is a doubling in the numbers who say they are confident when the technology is posited as being ‘in safe hands (of scientists)’, in comparison to confidence in the regulatory system. Scientists, of course, have been accorded higher levels of trust in studies of biotechnology and government regulators have correspondingly garnered lower levels of trust so this finding is in line with these earlier studies.

Attitudes toward and Expectations for Nanotechnology

In this section, we discuss the expectations publics in the two countries have of NT. These expectations are presented in the context of optimism about NT, the expected criteria to be applied, and expectations for government. We then explore the nature of these publics’ overall assessment of nanotechnology and provide a more detailed investigation of explanatory factors for this overall assessment.

It is clear that a large majority in both countries have high expectations for this technology. It is seen to promise health treatments and cures and to lead to significant advances for quality of life (Table 4).

Table 3. Expectation of nanotechnology.

Expectations

Canada

USA

Optimism

 

 

1a. Nanotechnology will be one of the most important sources of health treatments and cures in the 21st century.

76%

71%

1b. NT probably won’t be a significant source of health treatments and cures in the 21st century.

20%

23%

2. NT research represents the next frontier of human endeavor and will lead to significant quality of life.

 

 

 

Agree

81%

80%

 

Disagree

15%

15%

Expected criteria

 

 

1a. Decisions about NT should be based mainly on the views and advice of experts.

71%

74%

1b. Decisions on NT should be based mainly on the views of average Canadians/Americans.

27%

21%

2a. Decisions on NT should be based mainly on the scientific evidence of risk and benefit.

65%

65%

2b. Decisions should be based mainly on the moral and ethical issues involved.

31%

29%

3.  If the best available scientific evidence says that a particular use of NT is safe, it should be allowed.

 

 

Agree

87%

84%

Disagree

12%

13%

4. Authorities should inform people about NT and let them decide for themselves whether they want to use products developed using these techniques.

 

 

 

Agree

92%

93%

 

Disagree

9%

7%

Expectations for, perceptions of government

 

 

1a. I trust those in authority to ensure that NT research that takes place in the U.S./Canada will follow strict ethical guidelines.

57%

55%

1b. I do not trust that those in authority will follow strict ethical guidelines

39%

41%

2. Until more is known about the risks of NT, government should slow the use of NT.

 

 

 

Agree

73%

63%

 

Disagree

25%

33%

3a. The government probably does an effective job of studying and monitoring the impact of NT products.

24%

32%

3b. The government does not do enough to study and monitor the impact of NT products.

65%

58%

We explored further some criteria publics apply to their assessments of NT. In this case, we investigated the notion of expert knowledge versus other criteria which publics might use for judging NT. As Table 3 illustrates, publics in both countries demonstrate their confidence in expert knowledge, with both groups maintaining the advice of experts, rather than the views of the average member of the public, ought to be utilized for decisions about the technology. Two thirds of both groups are also more likely to prefer reliance on scientific evidence of risks and benefits. The forced-choice nature of these questions posed intentionally to respondents  makes it more difficult to provide a nuanced response so it is striking that at least three in ten express a preference for decisions to be based “mainly on the moral and ethical issues involved” rather than the scientific evidence of risk and benefit.

Also striking is the scepticism expressed by publics in both countries around the consideration and application of moral or ethical standards (presumably by those in control of the technology). Only a small majority in both countries express confidence that those in authority will ensure NT research will adhere to strict ethical guidelines. There is an expectation among more Canadians than Americans (73 versus 63 %) that a better understanding of risks ought to be achieved and until this happens, the use of NT ought to be slowed down. At the same time, little confidence is displayed about government doing an effective job in monitoring the impacts of NT products: two thirds of Canadians and close to six in ten Americans think not enough is being done by government in this area.

Although there is an expectation that the metric of risks and benefits ought to apply, this does not preclude use of other criteria including ethical standards in the development of technology. The broad range of criteria identified by various publics on the GM food issue is a good example.[10]

The principle of informed choice is also reflected in the near-unanimous expectation that almost all respondents voiced: the need for information in order to exercise the right to choose.

Views on Governance

Finally, we explored the parameters for overall assessment of going forward or not going forward with NT.  A reasonable general evaluation of NT is provided by the projected overall approval of the technology and the degree to which this approval is contingent on the degree of regulatory control. A summary question was posed to respondents: Overall, which of the following best captures your views about NT? The choices and the results are presented in Figure 3, with the choices reflecting the degree of control or ‘laxity’ preferred and a final option suggesting that regardless of control, this technology ought not to move forward.

AZoNano - Nanotechnology - Conditions for overall approval of nanotechnology for Canada and the USA

Figure 3. Conditions for overall approval of nanotechnology.

As is evident in Figure 3, these results show that Canadians’ approval of NT is dependent on tighter regulations while for Americans, overall approval rests on ‘the usual levels of government regulation and control.’ Again, it is highly likely that respondents are extrapolating from extant perceptions of regulatory performance rather than from awareness and familiarity of standards that are in place or are being considered for nanotechnology. 

Relaxed: I approve the use of NT as long as the usual levels of government regulation and control are in place.

Strict: I approve of NT as long as it is more tightly controlled and regulated.

Limited: I do not approve of NT except under very special circumstances.

Never: I do not approve of NT under any circumstances.

What factors help to explain this overall view? We hypothesized that this summary judgment might be explained by a combination of personal, technological, and structural or institutional factors. By applying multiple regression, we investigated whether the following factors might account for this overall assessment: the individual’s degree of societal involvement (a personal attribute), the perceived risks, benefits, and moral acceptability of the technology (the technology’s attributes), and the degree of confidence in the regulatory system (an institutional attribute). The measure for involvement included questions relating to familiarity with the technology, exposure to media coverage on NT, discussion of the technology, and general newspaper readership. This analysis was carried out by controlling for three demographic variables: age, education, and gender.

As shown in Table 4, for Canadians, the most important predictor was institutional, represented by confidence in the regulatory system. This was followed by the technology’s attributes, with perceived risk and moral acceptability being stronger predictors than perceived benefit.  The personal attribute of involvement was not significantly related to overall approval for respondents in both countries.

For US respondents, on the other hand, the technology’s attributes were the best predictors for overall approval, particularly the expected benefits, perceived risks, and ‘moral acceptability’ of the technology. The relatively higher levels of confidence in the regulatory system among Americans (see Table 3) could potentially allow them to foreground the technology's attributes more than Canadians.

Having said this, the fact that all these factors play a significant role in the overall assessment of nanotechnology suggests that public views and expectations, while guided by considerations of risks and benefits, are clearly influenced by the interaction of individual, technological, and institutional factors.

Table 4.  Predictors of overall approval of nanotechnology

Canada

Unstandardized Coefficients

Standardized Coefficients

t

Sig.

Model

B

Std error

Beta

(Constant)

1.916

 

 

11.305

<.001*

Benefit

.224

.169

.280

9.493

<.001*

Moral acceptability

.162

.024

.214

6.766

<.001*

Risk

-.149

.023

-.188

-6.468

<.001*

Confidence in regulatory system

.096

.024

.127

4.013

<.001*

Involvement

.026

.017

.044

1.560

.119

Sex

.079

.041

.051

1.896

.058*

Education

.029

.015

.051

1.930

.054

Age

-.033

.014

-.063

-2.382

.017*

R-square = 0.392

F(8,890) = 71.746, p<.001*

USA

Unstandardized Coefficients

Standardized Coefficients

t

Sig.

Model

B

Std error

Beta

(Constant)

1.475

.247

 

5.978

<.001*

Benefit

.233

.037

.285

6.336

<.001*

Moral acceptability

.161

.034

.199

4.687

<.001*

Risk

-.148

.032

-.174

-4.584

<.001*

Confidence in regulatory system

.122

.033

.145

3.684

<.001*

Involvement

-.022

.025

-.033

-.868

.386

Sex

.159

.062

.089

2.541

.011*

Education

.057

.025

.084

2.323

.021*

Age

-.004

.021

-.006

-.184

.854

R-square = 0.411

F(8,520) = 45.381, p<.001*

Conclusions and Policy Implications

What does this early picture of nanotechnology and the publics in two North American countries tell us? Again, it is important to emphasize that despite limited familiarity and awareness among publics in both countries, opinions on and assessments of nanotechnology are expressed, with the likelihood that respondents are possibly drawing on heuristics they have stored in their mental maps of technology generally and the technologies they are familiar with.

That Canadians and Americans are generally optimistic about technology in general and about nanotechnology in particular is evident from these results. At the same time, there are differences between publics in both countries, with Americans generally more inclined to project more benefits and fewer risks and to see the technology as being more morally acceptable than questionable. These country differences have been in evidence in assessments of biotechnology.[11]  and are attributable in part to differences in confidence in the regulatory system.

Early trust in expertise has been demonstrable in this survey.  At the same time, this trust has been shown not to be a ‘blank check’; there are caveats and are seen as dependent on the nature of the application.[12]

One important condition in this initial landscape is that nanotechnology is presented in toto, whose specific applications have not been provided to respondents.  The difference in perceptions between “biotechnology” and “GM food” as a specific application, evident in Figure 1, illustrates this point. It is likely that as the technology evolves and its specific applications are presented in public fora, public representations will develop complexity and nuance over time.

The importance of – and limits to – the risk-benefit standard are evident in this early-stage picture. These criteria are obviously important in the assessment of publics in both countries. However, confidence in the regulatory system also plays an important role in projecting overall assessments and the nature of expected control.  In the U.S., greater trust in the regulatory system makes for greater comfort in current systems of control; in Canada, on the other hand, the assessment of conditional approval contingent on stricter regulation could be a projection of a series of previous experiences with various technologies, including their oversight.

For policy makers and the networks of interests around policy-making, the implications are clear for governance of this technology. Issues of trust which embrace transparency and accountability are going to be important. As well, the on-going involvement of various publics will be critical.[13]  This includes wide dissemination of information in a broad range of channels to diverse publics. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, for example, has supported a range of programs for formal (e.g., materials for K-12 students) and informal education such as science center initiatives.[14]  Early public engagement through discussion and debate will similarly be critical. The European nanologue initiative is one example of this approach (www.nanologue.net).  These points have already been recognized in a number of reports and policy documents. The UK Royal Society report, for example, has recommended  keeping in close touch with views of diverse publics, supporting public dialogue initiatives carried forward by public bodies, monitoring their performance and that of other public bodies to ensure public accountability, and engaging a wide range of stakeholders on an on-going basis.[5]

The views of publics in these countries are clearly in their formative stages. The technology is also in its early days. What better time to engage different publics than the present, when technology is in its more flexible form?

Acknowledgement

Support from the Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat from whom the dataset was made available and from Genome Canada is gratefully acknowledged.

References

1.       European Commission Research Directorate-General, Planning for Europe’s Future in Nanotechnology. http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/growth/pdf/nanotechnology-conference/backgrounder_en.txt

2.       Baker, S. and A. Aston (2005). “The Business of Nanotechnology”. Business Week, Feb. 14. 64-71.

3.       Gaskell, G., T. TenEyck, J. Jackson, and G. Veltri (2005). Imagining nanotechnology: cultural support for technological innovation in Europe and the United States. Public understanding of science, 14:1

4.       ETC Group, No Small Matter II: The Case for a Global Moratorium@ ETC Group Occasional Paper Series: 7:1 (April, 2003), online: ETC www.etcgroup.org/documents/Occ.Paper_Nanosafety.pdf.

5.       Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (2004). Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties. July

6.       BMRB Social Research (2004). “Nanotechnology – Views of the General Public: Quantitative and Qualitative Research carried out as part of the Nanotechnology Study.” Prepared for the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Nanotechnology Working Group. London

7.       Midden, C., D. Boy, E. Einsiedel, B. Fjaestad, M. Liakopolous, J. Miller, S. Ohman, and W. Wagner (2002), “The structure of public perceptions”.  In M. Bauer and G. Gaskell (eds.), Biotechnology: the making of a global controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

8.       Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124-1130.

9.       Gaskell, G., E. Einsiedel, S. Priest, T. Ten Eyck, N. Allum, and H. Torgersen, Troubled waters: the Atlantic divide on biotechnology policy. In G. Gaskell and M. Bauer (eds.), Biotechnology 1996-2000: the years of controversy. London: Science Museum, 2001.

10.   Solter, D., D. Beyleveld, M. Friele, J. Holowka, H. Lilie, et.al.,  Embryo research in pluralistic Europe. Berlin: Springer, 2003.

11.   Einsiedel, E.F. and L. Goldenberg (2004), “Dwarfing the social? Lessons for nanotechnology from the biotechnology front”. Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society, 24:1, February, pp. 28-33

12.   Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology Subcommittee, National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategic Plan. Committee on Technology, National Science and Technology Council. Washington DC. December 2004.

Contact Details

Edna Einsiedel
University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4
Canada

E-mail: einsiede@ucalgary.ca

 

Date Added: Dec 30, 2005 | Updated: Jun 11, 2013
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