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Media Contacts:
Dr. Michael Cobb, 919/513-3709
Chad Austin, News Services, 919/515-3470

July 14, 2004

Study Shows Americans Encouraged by Prospects of Nanotechnology

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Despite lacking concrete knowledge about nanotechnology, most Americans hold a generally positive view of the emerging science and believe the technology’s potential benefits outweigh its perceived risks. At the same time, most Americans do not trust business leaders in the nanotechnology industry to minimize potential risks to humans.

Those are some of the key findings of a study conducted by North Carolina State University researchers in the first nationally representative survey designed to gauge the public’s perceptions about nanotechnology. The telephone survey polled a random sample of 1,536 adults in the continental United States in the spring of 2004 and is part of a larger research project studying public perceptions of nanotechnology that is funded by a $135,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

More than 80 percent of those polled indicated they had heard “little” or “nothing” about nanotechnology, and most could not correctly answer factual questions about it. However, despite knowing very little about the science, 40 percent of respondents predicted nanotechnology would produce more benefits than risks. Another 38 percent believed risks and benefits of nanotechnology would be about equal, and only 22 percent said risks outweigh the benefits.

Dr. Michael Cobb, assistant professor of political science at NC State who designed the survey and analyzed its results, says the findings suggest the public’s positive views of nanotechnology are likely rooted in Americans’ positive views of science in general. Cobb served as one of three principle investigators for the project, along with NC State faculty members Dr. Patrick Hamlett, associate professor of science, technology and society, and Dr. Jane Macoubrie, assistant professor of communication. A report of the team’s findings has been submitted to the NSF and will appear in the next Journal of Nanoparticle Research.

“The results of the survey suggest that while Americans do not necessarily presume benefits and the absence of risks associated with nanotechnology, the general public’s outlook is much more positive than negative,” Cobb says.

Nanotechnology refers to the emerging science of manufacturing materials that are measured in nanometers – one-billionth of a meter in size, which is much smaller than the head of a pin. A pin head is 1 million nanometers wide. Although nanoscience research is still in its infancy, many predict this technology will have a tremendous impact on everyday life. By manipulating atoms and molecules to create new and smaller devices, scientists believe nanotechnology will revolutionize areas such as health care, microelectronics and defense. Critics, however, are concerned about the adequacy of current regulations and oversight of the technology, and they point to recent studies suggesting that nanoparticles could be toxic to humans.

Although the science has many unknown social, economic and environmental implications, survey respondents reported feeling “hopeful” about nanotechnology rather than “worried” or “angry” about it. Approximately 70 percent of those surveyed said they were “somewhat” or “very” hopeful about nanotechnology, while 80 percent said they were not worried at all about the science. Only 5 percent said they felt angry about the science.

Cobb says the generally positive emotional responses to nanotechnology are significant because emotions are potentially better predictors of behaviors and opinions regarding unfamiliar issues. If respondents thought nanotechnology would displace American workers, for example, they might react angrily. Instead, Americans appear to be more attentive to its potential benefits and are therefore hopeful rather than worried.

Respondents were also asked to choose the most important potential benefit from nanotechnology from a list of five options. A majority (57 percent) cited “new and better ways to detect and treat human diseases.” Despite nanotechnology’s potential to deliver “cheaper, longer-lasting consumer products,” only 4 percent of those surveyed identified that as the most important benefit. Sixteen percent selected “new and better ways to clean up the environment”; 12 percent chose “increased national security and defense capabilities”; and 11 percent identified ways to “improve human physical and mental abilities” as the most important benefit.

In choosing which potential risk from a list of five was the most important to avoid, most respondents (32 percent) picked “losing personal privacy to tiny new surveillance devices.” Others wanted to avoid “a nanotechnology inspired arms race” (24 percent); “breathing nano-sized particles that accumulate in your body” (19 percent); “economic disruption caused by the loss of traditional jobs” (14 percent); and the science-fiction scenario of “the uncontrollable spread of self-replicating nano-robots” depicted in Michael Crichton’s novel, Prey (12 percent).

Despite the overall positive perceptions of nanotechnology and its potential benefits, most Americans reported they were distrustful of business leaders’ ability or willingness to minimize risks to humans. Sixty percent of those surveyed said they had “not much trust” that business leaders would minimize risks to humans. Less than 5 percent said they had “a lot” of trust, while 35 percent claimed they had “some” trust. Respondents who were less trusting were also more likely to think nanotechnology’s risks are greater than its benefits. Cobb says the lack of trust in business leaders is the most pessimistic outlook for future public reactions toward nanotechnology.

“Americans’ lack of trust in business leaders could present a serious obstacle to the successful promotion of nanotechnology, especially should an accident occur,” Cobb says.

As part of the survey, Cobb also examined how much respondents’ attitudes could be influenced when presented with positive or negative information about nanotechnology. Respondents were presented with different arguments about nanotechnology – some highlighted risks and others highlighted benefits. Other respondents heard a balanced mix of positive and negative arguments, while a control group did not hear these messages about nanotechnology.

Cobb found that positive and negative arguments resulted in only a slight change in respondents’ perceptions of the benefits and risks of nanotechnology. People who received information highlighting potential risks thought nanotechnology would be more risky, but still not more risky than beneficial. Those who received messages about the potential benefits were slightly more likely to see nanotechnology as beneficial. The positive or negative arguments never caused a complete reversal in opinion and rarely produced a dramatic shift in perceptions. Cobb says he was surprised the frames didn’t create a more substantial shift among respondents.

“Framing effects can be quite large when respondents know little about a subject because they are more likely to rely on the information you give them,” Cobb says. “Most studies of persuasion find that messages about risks are especially powerful. It’s therefore surprising that these arguments didn’t move people more than they did.”

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