Survey: Hiding risks can hurt public support for nanotechnology

May 4, 2010

A new national survey on public attitudes toward medical applications and physical enhancements that rely on nanotechnology shows that support for the technology increases when the public is informed of the technology's risks as well as its benefits - at least among those people who have heard of nanotechnology. The survey, which was conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University and Arizona State University (ASU), also found that discussing risks decreased support among those people who had never previously heard of nanotechnology - but not by much.

"The suggests that researchers, industries and policymakers should not be afraid to display the risks as well as the benefits of ," says Dr. Michael Cobb, an associate professor of political science at NC State who conducted the survey. "We found that when people know something about nanotechnologies for human enhancement, they are more supportive of it when they are presented with balanced information about its risks and benefits."

The survey was conducted by Cobb in collaboration with Drs. Clark Miller and Sean Hays of ASU, and was funded by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU.

However, talking about risks did not boost support among all segments of the population. Those who had never heard of nanotechnology prior to the survey were slightly less supportive when told of its potential risks.

In addition to asking participants how much they supported the use of nanotechnology for human enhancements, they were also asked how beneficial and risky they thought these technologies would be, whether they were worried about not getting access to them, and who should pay for them - health insurance companies or individuals paying out-of-pocket. The potential enhancements addressed in the survey run the gamut from advanced cancer treatments to bionic limbs designed to impart greater physical strength.

One segment of participants was shown an image of an unrealistic illustration meant to represent a nanoscale medical device. A second segment was shown the image and given a "therapeutic" framing statement that described the technology as being able to restore an ill person to full health. A third segment was given the image, along with an "enhancement" framing statement that described the technology as being able to make humans faster, stronger and smarter. Two additional segments were given the image, the framing statements and information about potential health risks. And a final segment of participants was not given the image, a framing statement or risk information.

The survey found that describing the technology as therapeutic resulted in much greater public support for the technology, as well as a greater perception of its potential benefits. The therapeutic frame also resulted in increased support for coverage of nanotech treatments once they become available, and increased concerns that people wouldn't be able to afford such treatments without insurance coverage.

"These findings suggest that researchers, policymakers and industries would be well advised to focus their research efforts on developing therapeutic technologies, rather than enhancements, because that is the area with the greatest public support," Cobb says.

The use of the nanotech image did not have a significant overall impact on participants' support, but did alarm people who were not previously familiar with nanotechnology - making them less likely to support it.

Explore further: Study Examines Public Attitudes On Nanotechnology

More information: The survey was conducted by Knowledge Networks between April 2-13. The survey included 849 participants, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent.

Related Stories

Study Examines Public Attitudes On Nanotechnology

August 30, 2005

Scientists have a rare opportunity to define public discourse over nanotechnology, if they provide citizens with easily digestible information about the emerging technology, a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor ...

Nanotechnology: What's that?

September 4, 2007

Nanoscience and nanotechnology are two of the hottest fields in research, investment, and manufacturing. Some hail nanotechnology as enabling "The Next Industrial Revolution."

Poll reveals public awareness of nanotech stuck at low level

September 25, 2007

National survey findings released today indicate that Americans’ awareness of nanotechnology remains low. Popular awareness is nearly as small as the tiny nanoscale materials and nano-enabled devices and products now flowing ...

Recommended for you

Making nanowires from protein and DNA

September 3, 2015

The ability to custom design biological materials such as protein and DNA opens up technological possibilities that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. For example, synthetic structures made of DNA could one day be ...

Graphene made superconductive by doping with lithium atoms

September 2, 2015

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers from Germany and Canada has found a way to make graphene superconductive—by doping it with lithium atoms. In their paper they have uploaded to the preprint server arXiv, the team describes ...

For 2-D boron, it's all about that base

September 2, 2015

Rice University scientists have theoretically determined that the properties of atom-thick sheets of boron depend on where those atoms land.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.