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If most adults in the US don't understand what nanotechnology is, how will they greet the new products and processes being developed? And what can nano companies do to protect their investments?
December 10th, 2008
Nanodemographics: Crisis and Opportunity
There's good news and bad news. The bad news is the general public doesn't understand what nanotechnology is - but the good news is the general public doesn't understand what nanotechnology is.
Why both bad and good? Because as nano industries face changing government policies and new regulations in the coming year, they'll require public support for their products and processes, which means a battle for the hearts and minds of the consumer. At the same time, these industries have a once-in-a-half-life opportunity to frame the debate over the benefits and risks of nanotechnology in a manner that ensures the public has the best and most accurate information.
According to a September 2008 survey conducted on behalf of the Project on Emerging Technology, 75 percent of U.S. adults surveyed said they knew little or nothing about nanotechnology. Of those respondents, nearly half (49%) said that they had heard nothing at all about nanotechnology. Only 7 percent claimed to have heard a lot about it. This level of U.S. public awareness has not changed significantly since PEN's first poll on the topic in 2004. http://www.nanotechproject.org/publications/archive/synbio/
Interestingly, the report concluded that the more knowledge respondents possessed, the more likely they were to believe that the benefits will outweigh the risks — 49 percent among those who had heard a lot about nanotechnology; 41% among those who have heard some about nanotechnology; and 24% among those who had heard only a little.
Another survey, released this month by North Carolina State University and Arizona State University, concentrated on the use of nanotechnology for human enhancement. It recorded significant support when participants considered enhancements promising to improve human health (88 percent, for instance, favored research into a video-to-brain link that could provide artificial eyesight for the blind.)
But it is important to note that, as consumer attitudes may become more cautious when they consider the use of nanotechnology in specific products.
Take the 2007 survey commissioned by Federal Institute for Risk Assessment of Germany, where environmental and consumer advocacy groups have engaged in debates on nanotechnology for some years. In that survey, 66 percent of respondents believed that nanotechnology offered more benefits than risks. But when the focus narrowed to include specific applications, support dwindled. While 86 percent approved the use of nanoparticles in paints and varnishes, only 53 favored their use in cosmetics; 69 percent opposed their use in spices and 84 percent opposed their use to improve the appearance of foods.
It's clear that education will be the nanotech industry's best defense in the marketplace of public opinion as it moves toward commercialization - and even novel research. Luckily, they may have the best resources already at hand, for the NCSU/ASU study also revealed that university scientists were among those participants most trusted to inform the public about potential risks from new technologies.
So bad news in this instance may be quite good, even representing a distinct advantage for those ready to lead the educational process and gain public confidence.