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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Penman PR > Educating Society on Nanotechnology

Patti D. Hill
CEO / Founder
Penman PR, Inc.

A question that continues to plague industry, government, civic groups and scientists is when or whether the general public will buy-in to nanotechnology. What will it take and whose responsibility is it to convince society that nanotechnology is worthy of deeper consideration. The answer is anything but crystal clear.

August 11th, 2009

Educating Society on Nanotechnology

In 2003, a public opinion poll published jointly by the Royal Society, the UK national academy of science, and Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK national academy of engineering, reported that an overwhelming majority of people had not heard of nanotechnology.

In 2007, scientists and nanotechnologists were stunned by a report issued by Akhlesh Lakhtakia, the Charles Godfrey Binder professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State; Priya Kurian, senior lecturer in political science and public policy, University of Waikato, New Zealand; and Robert V. Bartlett, the Gund professor of liberal arts at the University of Vermont. They found that the general public was only vaguely aware of nanotechnology.

In the fall of 2008, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies released its third poll on the public's awareness and acceptance of nanotechnology. It concluded that seven percent of Americans had heard "a lot" about nanotechnology; 17% had heard "some"; 26% had heard "just a little"; and 49% heard "nothing at all".

RNCOS, a leading market research and information analysis company, suggested years ago that nanotechnology could only be revolutionized by involving all available marketing channels. End-users, investors, industry and society all need to be educated and informed. To date, media, trade associations and conferences have been the primary marketing vehicles but with limited public involvement.

Although scientists' and nanotechnologists' marketing efforts continue to fall short of reaching Joe Q. Public, it's important to note that not all nanotech companies need to influence the general public in order to reach their business objectives.

Take for example, Austin-based NovaCentrix, a company with focus on printed electronics manufacturing technologies. Their technology tools process metal-based conductive inks, as well as non-metallic and semiconductor inks, which are attractive to flexible displays, RFID tags, flexible lighting, printable circuits, and solar film application companies.

Another Austin-based company, Applied Nanotech, Inc., licenses their intellectual property to companies interested in manufacturing products using their technology. Although they are a publicly traded company and seek to educate and inform investors, their business objectives require creating a market demand for their technology based on novel applications of carbon nanotube technology.

In both these instances, their marketing and sales initiatives do not include the general public.

There are thousands of companies like these whose organizational objectives do not include educating or informing the general public about nanotechnology. Because nanotechnology has the potential to impact society in a myriad of ways, there are many public and private organizations across the globe interested in helping the general public understand and appreciate the value of nanotechnology.

National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is one. They consider public engagement to be one of its key objectives, so publicizes key research findings. Foresight Nanotech Institute provides "balanced, accurate and timely information to help society understand nanotechnology." London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN) claims a strong media presence aimed at educating the public.

The conspicuously missing component in this equation is public adoption. Report data from North Carolina State University suggests that educating the public about nanotechnology causes people to become anxious. This stems from the natural phenomenon of individuals perceiving and understanding information differently, depending on the knowledge each person brings to the situation.

Other contributing factors are benefits and threats. Currently, the general public believes that the potential dangers of nanotechnology outweigh potential benefits, and rightly so. While the threats are widely touted, the benefits don't thoroughly connect with the general public, or the messages are landing on ambiguous or deaf ears. Yes, improved manufacturing methods, water purification systems, energy systems, physical enhancement, nanomedicine, better food production methods and nutrition and large scale infrastructure auto-fabrication are all incredible benefits of nanotechnology, but if the general public doesn't realize a direct gain there will be no mass buy-in.

In order for nanotechnology to receive wide acceptance and adoption, each new breakthrough must be widely perceived as meeting a critical need to a wide audience. Even then, adoption rates vary - some individuals are quick to adopt the latest innovations while many others are slower or resistant to change. Potential adopters of a technology progress over time and throughout the adoption process, the focus should be squarely on the user or adopter - the general public.

Japan seems to have found a solution.

In 2004, Nanotechnology Research Institute of AIST conducted a survey on nanotechnology to the general public. The 1011 interviewees were not experts or professionals in science or technology, but because of the high literacy rate in Japan more than 65% of the interviewees have university degrees. Of those interviewed, 44% declared an interest in science and technology; 50% believe that nanotechnology would improve their lives. Eighty-seven percent of interviewees received science and technology information from television news; 33% were from television science programs; 31% from the internet and 62% from the Japanese popular news. Regarding issues related to nanotechnology, more than 55% claimed they had heard frequently or from time-to-time about nanotechnology.

Looking at these statistics from the perspective of educating society on the value of nanotechnology, the golden nuggets lie in the intellect and curiosity of the individuals surveyed, and readily available information.

Could it be this simple?

If pundits, broadcast programming executives and news editors throughout the world increased coverage of small tech, and the information was delivered on a level that made sense to the general public - in effect, society could be educated to the point where it stood behind nanotechnology and aid informed public debate.

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