According to Kahan and other experts, the findings highlight the need for public education strategies that consider citizens' predispositions.
"The message matters," said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. "How information about nanotechnology is presented to the vast majority of the public who still know little about it can either make or break this technology."
Despite these misgivings, a third study carried out by researchers at Cardiff University in Wales, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that overall, ordinary people in Britain and the United States hold positive views of nanotechnologies and what they might bring.
The researchers also found that technological developments related to human health raised moral and ethical dilemmas, while respondents questioned whether those responsible for carrying out the research—that is, governments, industry and scientists—could be fully trusted to control nanotechnologies in the future.
"The findings suggest that the possible benefits of emerging nanotechnologies are likely to continue to outweigh possible risks in public attitudes," said Professor Nick Pidgeon of the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and leader of that study. "The fact that participants voiced scepticism about who to trust to control nanotechnologies, and that health applications raised particular moral issues, means that it would be a great mistake to pursue development of such technologies without some form of public debate and oversight."
The three studies, which appear on line in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, were funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and private organizations.
—By Leslie Fink, NSF, from material issued by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Yale University and Cardiff University.
This report is provided by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, in partnership with U.S. News and World Report.