Nanotechnology: The Risks and Rewards

Nanoscience and nanotechnology includes science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which involves the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometres. There are many different fields in which nanotechnology is used including the medical field, drug delivery, biosensors and medical imaging.

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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 technologies. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded two national centres (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 University (CNS-ASU). Both centres include in their research portfolios investigations of the US (and comparative other) publics' views of nanotechnology's risks and benefits.

Risks and Benefit Perception

In 2008 the NSF and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly funded two new national centres based at UCLA/UCSB (University of California Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology-UC CEIN) and Duke University (Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology-CEINT) to advance knowledge about toxicological and ecological risks posed by specific manufactured nanomaterials.

Risk perception research focuses on social risk phenomena that traditional risk assessment is unable to explain. Such phenomena include the strong public opposition to nuclear power in the US, resistance to genetically modified food in Europe, and attenuated public risk perception such as that regarding the hazards of risky sexual behaviour or sun tanning behaviour.

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 views.

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'. It also drew attention 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.

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 comparative cross-national US-UK deliberative workshops on nanotechnologies for health and energy were conducted. It was found 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 enhancement technologies.

Deliberative research in progress looked 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.

Recent Developments

After more than 20 years of nanoscience research, the applications of nanotechnology are delivering ways on nanotechnology’s promise to benefit society.

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), nanotechnology is helping to improve and revolutionize many technology and industry sectors. There include medical, transport, technology, security, energy, food and environmental science industries. With nanotechnology materials can be made stronger, lighter, more durable, more reactive, more sieve-like and better electrical conductors.

In 2012 the NNI launched two more Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (NSIs), increasing the total to five. The two new NSIs included Nano sensors and the Nanotechnology Knowledge Infrastructure (NKI). The 2019 the Federal Budget has allocated more than $1.4 billion to the (NNI), showing how important the role is that nanotechnology continues to play.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Louise Saul

Written by

Louise Saul

Louise pursued her passion for science by studying for a BSc (Hons) Biochemistry degree at Sheffield Hallam University, where she gained a first class degree. She has since gained a M.Sc. by research and has worked in a number of scientific organizations.

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