Three studies published this week that assessed public views toward nanotechnology—the study, manufacture and manipulation of the infinitesimally small—show that people are generally in favor of the technology, but have some reservations based on religious and culture differences. Study participants also questioned whether those engaged in nanotechnology research could be trusted to control its use.
Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually on a scale from 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter—a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide. The technology already permeates the U.S. marketplace with more than 1,000 products ranging from more efficient solar panels and scratch-resistant automobile paint to souped-up golf clubs.
Experts estimate nanotechnology will be a $3.1 trillion global industry by 2015.
Still, nanotechnologies are among the latest new technologies to raise concerns about health, environmental risks and public acceptability.
According to researchers based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "nano" and its capacity to alter the fundamentals of nature, it seems, are failing the moral litmus test of religion. Survey results from the United States and Europe reveal a sharp contrast in the perception that nanotechnology is morally acceptable. Those views, according to the report, correlate directly with religious views.
"We found that religion is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not nanotechnology is morally acceptable and whether or not it is perceived to be useful for society," said Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication and one of the study leaders.
In the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life—notably Italy, Austria and Ireland—nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.
The study compared answers to identical questions posed by the 2006 Eurobarometer public opinion survey and a 2007 poll by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center conducted under the auspices of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University.
The group controlled for such things as science literacy, educational performance, as well as research productivity and science and technology funding by different countries.
Scheufele said the findings are particularly surprising for the United States because the country is a highly technological society and many of the discoveries that underpin nanotechnology emanated from American universities and companies. "Nanotechnology is one of those areas that is starting to touch nearly every part of our lives," said.
Meanwhile, results from a study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies found that members of the public who are just learning about the new technology judge its safety based on their attitudes about environmental and technological risks in general.
"People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe," said Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan. "While people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous."
The experiment involved a diverse sample of 1,500 Americans, most of whom were unfamiliar with nanotechnology. When shown balanced information about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, study participants became highly divided on its safety compared to a group not shown such information.
'When they learned about a new technology, people formed reactions to it that matched their views of risks like climate change and nuclear waste disposal," Kahan said.
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.