(NHI Nanoblog) As with many scientific concepts and fields, “nanotechnology” has entered the public lexicon, but few laypeople have more than a vague understanding of what it actually entails.
Depending on your perspective, that could be a good thing. For example, some of the protests over the health concerns about various nano-based products that have blown up in other countries haven’t happened here. Others would argue that the lack of knowledge means that real risks could go unnoticed by the public.
Researchers who follow how public opinion is shaped are finding that views about nanotechnology are all over the map. In a new overview of that work, University of Wisconsin professor Dietram A. Scheufele, (pictured) outlines what the studies show, and what they tell us about the future.
Nanotechnology involves making medicines and consumer products from the super-properties of super-small particles. Nanoparticles are already in stuff ranging from bike frames to mold remover. But the very property that makes these products useful—their tiny size—might also make them dangerous, both in the short and long term.
Scheufele, a professor of science communication, notes that the closest parallel to nanotechnology in terms of public opinion is the ongoing debate over biotechnology and bioengineering. Other researchers also have described the parallels, with one major difference: There’s not much of a debate over nanotechnology, at least outside the realm of science and policy discussions.
Many of the opinions surveys that have asked respondents about nanotechnology, Schuefele writes, are somewhat flawed because they often ask about risk vs. benefit in the same question.
Looking ahead, Scheufele says, there are two major challenges: “knowledge gaps,” or major differences people between people of difference socioeconomic and educational levels, and the role that personal values, such as religion, play in forming opinions.
The former has a major impact on how scientists try and help the public understand what nanotechnology is, and what’s good and bad about it. The latter, which has been a big factor in other scientific debates, such as evolution, bioengineering and climate change, means that U.S. scientists and policymakers have to be aware that outreach efforts that work in other countries might not do the trick here at home.