Thought Leaders

Risks and Benefits of Nanotechnology

Professor Barbara Herr Harthorn, Director, NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society at University of California at Santa Barbara; Professor Nick Pidgeon, Department of Psychology, Cardiff University; Professor Terre Satterfield, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia
Corresponding author: [email protected]

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.

US National Nanotechnology Initiative charge: “Responsible development of nanotechnology entails research toward understanding the public health and safety and environmental implications of nanotechnology, as well as research toward promising, highly beneficial uses of the technology. … Responsible development of nanotechnology also entails establishing channels of communication with relevant stakeholders, in terms of both providing information and seeking input” (NNI, Society & Safety).

Risks to health and environment: In 2008 NSF and the US EPA jointly funded two new national centers based at UCLA/UCSB (Univ of California Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology-UC CEIN) and Duke Univ (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, 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 views.

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 enhancement technologies.

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:
2. 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, 95-98.
4. Nature Nanotechnology, Editorial, Nov 2009, p 695.
5. Kahan, D. 2009. Nanotechnology and society: The evolution of risk perceptions. Vol 4, Nov, 705-706.

Copyright, Professor Barbara Herr Harthorn (NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society at University of California at Santa Barbara)

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