People in the US and the UK show strong similarities in their attitudes toward nanotechnologies

Dec 09, 2008

The results of a new U.S.–U.K. study published in this week's journal Nature Nanotechnology show that ordinary people in both countries hold very positive views of nanotechnologies and what the future of these technologies might bring. Participants in both countries indicated a significantly higher comfort level with energy applications of nanotechnologies than with applications used in health treatments.

Nanotechnology –– the science and technology of exceptionally small materials and processes –– is among the latest new technologies to raise public concerns about health and environmental risks.

The article reports on the first study of its kind. It involved four workshops, held at the same time in Santa Barbara and Cardiff, Wales. Workshop participants deliberated about two broad types of nanotechnology applications –– energy and health.

The study was carried out in the United States by the NSF Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and in the United Kingdom by a collaborating research team from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University.

Barbara Herr Harthorn, director of the UCSB Center, led the interdisciplinary, international research team. She noted that one of the unexpectedly strong findings of the study was that the type of nanotechnology mattered greatly to the participants. She said participants in both countries viewed energy applications of nanotechnology more positively than health technologies, in terms of risks and benefits.

"Much of the public perception research on nanotechnology in the U.S. and abroad has focused on a generic 'nanotechnology' risk object," said Harthorn. "This work moves to a higher level of specificity and in doing so finds striking differences in views of benefit depending on application context.

"More specifically, perceived urgency of need for new energy technologies is strongly associated with high perceived benefit and lower risk perception, regardless of what materials, processes, or environmental risks are associated," she said.

Nick Pidgeon, who led the research team at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, explained, "The Royal Society's 2004 report on nanotechnologies recommended public engagement and deliberation on nanotechnology risks and benefits. This study represents the first ever such public engagement exercise to be simultaneously conducted in two different countries."

The results include the following key findings:

-- Overall participants in both countries focused on the benefits rather than the risks of nanotechnologies, and also exhibited a high degree of optimism regarding the future contribution of new technologies to society. This pattern was very similar in the workshops in both the United States and Britain.

-- Some small cross-country differences were present. U.K. participants were generally more aware of recent technological controversies and risk governance failures (examples include genetically modified organisms, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and foot and mouth disease), leading some to voice specific concerns about future nanotechnology risks.

-- Greater differences were observed when participants (irrespective of their country) discussed the different applications. In particular, new technology developments for energy applications were seen as unproblematic, while questions of human health were felt to raise moral and ethical dilemmas. As was found by the U.K. Royal Society in 2004 for Britain, in the current study participants in both the U.K. and U.S. questioned whether those responsible (governments, industry, scientists) could be fully trusted to control nanotechnologies in the future.

Source: University of California - Santa Barbara

Explore further: Penn team studies nanocrystals by passing them through tiny pores

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Holokinetic
3.5 / 5 (2) Dec 09, 2008
It is interesting that these surveys do not reflect the intellectual vigilances portrayed in the ending chapters of Drexler's "Engines of Creation." Now that we know that the military industrial complexes of the Democracies are speeding headlong towards "sufficiently advanced" nanotech for military use, and that they have the most funding for these enterprises, and that their goals are hidden, and that we already know the risks, i.e. Grey Goo, why do these surveys not take it to the limit, and ask if people trust their military industrial complexes to achieve certain "inevitable" results ?

Why. Why cannot we speak directly to the risks of military applications of nanotechnology ? Perhaps if faced with the truely frightening applications and results of unbridled, misunderstood, and hidden advances of nanotech development, "lay" people would be able to make finer distinctions about the risks, and ask their governments the real question:

What is actually going on, and what is it that you hope to achieve ?

Until we face the music, and ask the scary questions, we'll all be surprised when someday a "sufficiently advanced" nanotechnology is used in a less than ethical manner.

Nature's nanotech continues to surprise us. Why should the nanotech of the military industrial complexes of the Democracies be any less surprising ?

Time is closing in on us. On the biosphere. Time to educate and collaborate. Time to wrest control of Pandora's box from those who refuse to disclose their intentions.

Past time.

Act now.

Be brave.

epitome808@gmail.com