Attention to possible risks to human health and environment along with other
public concerns about social and ethical issues is essential for responsible
development of new technologies1. The National
Science Foundation funded two national centers (2005) devoted to studying the
societal implications of emerging nanotechnologies, the Centers for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS), at the
University of California at Santa Barbara (CNS-UCSB) and at Arizona State Univ (CNS-ASU).
Both centers include in their research portfolios investigations of the US
(and comparative other) publics' views of nanotechnology's risks and
benefits-our approach in CNS-UCSB is focused on risk perception research rather than
public opinion polling.
Risk perception research focuses on social risk phenomena that traditional
risk assessment is unable to explain, for example strong public opposition to
nuclear power in the US, or public resistance to genetically modified food in
Europe, or, on the other hand, attenuated public risk perception such as that
regarding the hazards of risky sexual behavior or sun tanning behavior.
Risk and benefit perception are far better predictors of how we will respond
to new technologies than are empirical data on harm. After nearly 4 years of
research on public views of nanotechnologies' risks and benefits in several
countries, we are still at the early stages of understanding these emerging
First, in a recent meta-analysis of all published survey research on public
attitudes toward nanotechnology in the US, Canada, Europe and Japan from
2004-20092, we found that public familiarity with nanotechnology continues
very low, with on average about 65% of surveyed people having little or no
familiarity with "nanotechnology." Notably, unfamiliarity in the nanotech case,
in contrast to past technological risk perception studies, so far is not
associated with risk aversion.
When given a little information on nanotechnology, over twice as many people
viewed the benefits as likely to outweigh the risks, indicating positive
dispositions toward science and technology and their likelihood of bringing
'good'. We also drew particular
attention, however, to the finding that on average 44% of people surveyed, a
very large minority, were unsure enough about nanotech's benefits or risks that
they were unwilling to express a judgment.
This large, unformed judgment base provides a unique opportunity for
education and engagement, and for regulatory and industry actions that will
enhance trust, a key factor in maintaining public acceptance, although both we and our commentators agree this
situation cannot be taken for granted and may not endure4,5.
What forms education and engagement should take in this unusual situation is
a key question that demands empirical research. To address this we are
conducting research using both quantitative surveys with large representative
samples and more focused, in-depth studies with smaller groups. The latter
include 2 projects on public deliberation aimed at gaining deeper understanding
of public concerns and desires, pilot formats for education and self-education,
and comparing views across different nanotech applications.
In 2007 we conducted
comparative cross-national US-UK deliberative workshops on nanotechnologies for
health and energy3. We found, consistent with the meta-analysis, that both US and
UK participants viewed nanotechnologies as likely to be beneficial, with some
more subtle differences regarding issues of distributional justice, and
government and corporate responsibility and trustworthiness. More striking was
the sharp contrast between consistently positive views of nanotechnologies for
energy and the more complex and multi-valent views about health, medical, and
In new deliberative research in progress we are looking much more closely at how and why gender so
profoundly affects technological optimism or pessimism. In addition, through
experimental survey research, we are exploring specifically how particular frames,
scenarios, applications, and other features of information interact with social
position and other experiences to shape perceptions of nanotech risk and
benefit. This plateau of ongoing low perceived risk also impels us to look
closely at the specificities and tolerances of benefit perception.
This article is based on work supported jointly by grants from the US
National Science Foundation to CNS-UCSB (cooperative agreement SES 0531184) and
the Leverhulme Trust to Cardiff University (F/00 407/ AG). Additional support
was provided by NSF and the US Environmental Protection Agency (cooperative
agreement EF 0830117). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or
recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not
necessarily reflect the views of the NSF or the EPA. This work has not been
subjected to EPA review and no official endorsement should be inferred.
1. NNI, Society & Safety:
Satterfield, T, Kandlikar, M, Beaudrie, C, Conti, J, and Harthorn, B, 2009.
"Anticipating the perceived risk of nanotechnologies," Nature Nanotechnology,
vol 4, 752-758.
3. Pidgeon, NF, Harthorn, B, Bryant, K and
Rogers-Hayden, T. 2009. "Deliberating the risks of nanotechnology for energy and
health applications in the US and UK," Nature Nanotechnology, vol 4, Feb,
4. Nature Nanotechnology, Editorial, Nov 2009, p
5. Kahan, D. 2009. Nanotechnology and society: The
evolution of risk perceptions. Vol 4, Nov, 705-706.
Copyright AZoNano.com, Professor Barbara Herr Harthorn (NSF
Center for Nanotechnology in Society at University of California at Santa