Research highlight

What the public thinks about nanotechnology

Nature Nanotechnology

December 8, 2008

Public perceptions of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology are explored in three papers published online in Nature Nanotechnology.

Public opinion surveys report that the small fraction of the public who are familiar with nanotechnology have a favourable view of it?a finding that has led many to assume that the public in general will respond favourably as awareness grows. However, an experiment conducted by Dan Kahan and colleagues does not support this ‘familiarity hypothesis’. They find that the sort of person who seeks information about nanotechnology, and their reaction to this information, depends on cultural factors. When exposed to balanced information, people with pro-commerce values ? who are already more likely to be familiar with nanotechnology ? tend to see benefits as outweighing risks, whereas people with anti-commerce values tend to see risks as outweighing benefits.

In a second paper, Dietram Scheufele and colleagues compare the influence of religious beliefs on attitudes towards nanotechnology in the United States and Europe. The researchers find that respondents in more-religious countries such as Austria, Ireland, Italy and the US are significantly less likely to see nanotechnology as morally acceptable or useful, compared with respondents in more secular countries such as Denmark, France, Germany and Sweden. They also find similar differences between religious and non-religious respondents within the US.

In a third paper, Nick Pidgeon and co-workers use workshops, in the UK and the US, to compare attitudes towards nanotechnology for energy and health applications. Such workshops allow the researchers to study reactions to new technologies in more detail than is possible in public opinion surveys. In both countries, the team finds that workshop participants tend to focus on benefits rather than risks, and that energy applications were viewed in a substantially more positive light, compared with applications in health and human enhancement.

doi: 10.1038/nnano.2008.341

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