Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government - Major Findings of 2004 Study

Topics Covered


Exploring Public Perceptions Of Nanotechnology

Major Findings Of 2004 Studies

Overview Of Current Study

Results Format


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.

Exploring Public Perceptions Of Nanotechnology

In 2004, the National Science Foundation provided funding for two separate explorations of citizen perceptions of nanotechnology. First, a national survey explored issue framing, trust in government to manage risks, and expectations of benefits versus risks from nanotechnology. Awareness of nanotechnology, attitudes towards it, and the present effect of science fiction films and novels such as Michael Crichton’s recent book Prey also were investigated (Cobb & Macoubrie, 2004).

Second, a separate study was designed to investigate the reactions of informed citizens. This study used experimental issue groups (EIGs) where citizens in three different cities were provided with background materials on nanotechnology and scenarios depicting possible developments projected for nanotechnology. Several forms of data were collected from the EIGs, including questionnaire data on attitudes towards nanotechnology, levels of concern for risk, trust in government and industry to manage risks, individual level reflections and insights, and demographic data for the participants (Macoubrie, in press).

Major Findings Of 2004 Studies

Major findings of the 2004 studies:

•        The national survey, which sampled 1,250 people, found high interest in anticipated benefits from nanotechnology. Many people had only heard the word nanotechnology, however, little knowledge has penetrated through the media to the general public.

•        The highest interest was in medical applications, particularly to target disease without invasive surgery, collateral damage, or side effects. However, in two regions of the country (West Coast and Midwest), these applications also evoked the lowest trust in government to manage the risks.

•        The public was not at all certain benefits would exceed risks. In fact, 22% believed risks would exceed benefits, while 38% expected risks and benefits to be about equal; 40% believed benefits would exceed risks.

•        In the experimental groups that were conducted involving 152 people, 95% of the participants expressed little or no trust in government to effectively manage the possible risks associated with nanotechnology. In the national survey, 95% of those surveyed did not trust industry leaders to effectively manage any risks. The similarity of these results was striking.

•        In the 2004 experimental study examining concerns about nanotechnology and reasons for them, concerns were dominated by experiential knowledge. Rather than true unknowns, possibilities that neither scientists nor citizens can predict, concerns were based on knowledge of past technological “breakthroughs” from which significant downsides later emerged.

•        The public did not seem to be fearful of nanotechnology itself, but is highly aware of past failures to gauge and manage risks found to be associated with other new technologies.

•        World military and “evil doer” risks were mentioned the most, followed by concerns about long-term health risks and environmental impacts.

•        Finally, higher education (college degree or higher) was related to low trust in government to manage any risks. No other demographic variable showed any significant link.

Overview Of Current Study

A more detailed description of the study design is provided in the Appendix. This section provides a sketch of the methods in areas that may be of most interest to readers. To study informed citizens’ perceptions and attitudes, information was provided to participants about existing and emerging nanotechnology applications in areas such as consumer products, medicine, and agriculture. One group received materials that discussed the anticipated convergence of nanotechnology and biotechnology and its uses to enhance the human body. In all, 12 groups with a total of 177 participants were gathered together in 3 different locations: Spokane, Washington; Dallas, Texas; and Cleveland, Ohio.

Following known best practices of science journalists, the background materials were developed to present a balanced view of known and projected applications of nanotechnology. Brief information also was included on the roles of six regulatory agencies, as well as Congress and the White House, involved (or potentially involved) in nanotechnology oversight. The materials were reviewed by scientists and regulators for accuracy, balance, and clarity and were written to be understandable by a lay audience. Materials focused on conveying known facts and the reasoning about important issues rather than merely stating opposing positions. The data analysis reported here was conducted by Dr. Jane Macoubrie.

Study pre- and post-test questionnaire, informational materials, and additional details of the study methodology are given in the Appendix of this report. Study participants were recruited to be representative of demographics in the 3 locations chosen for the study. The primary characteristics of the study participants relative to the 2000 Census are shown below.

Table 1. Primary Characteristics Of Study Parcipitants


Political Affiliation




Af. Am.


Native American & Other

Mean Income



Study Sample

R=30% D=37% Ind=25% Other=8%









HS=22* SC=26 TRD/CERT=10 CD=23 >CD16

2000 US Census










HS=27 SC=21 CD=26 >CD=9

EDU: HS = high school diploma, SC = some college, TRD = trade or certificate training beyond HS, CD = college degree, >CD = education beyond 4 year degree. *Less than HS = 2.3%. Missing data = 1.1%.

Results Format

Results of this study are from an analysis of three forms of data:

1) answers to survey questions in pre- and post-test questionnaires,

2) individual-level data provided in response to opportunities to privately express areas of concerns and benefits, prior to group discussion, and

3) group discussion of concerns, benefits, and perceptions of regulatory agencies.

Pre-test survey questionnaires were administered prior to the study. After reading the informational materials, individuals then gave responses to ‘concerns’ and ‘anticipated benefits’ of nanotechnology, discussed specific issues in their group, and finally, completed a post-study questionnaire. Some questionnaire items were included in both pre- and post-test; others were only asked in post-test, as appropriate.

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

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