Despite lacking concrete knowledge about nanotechnology, most Americans hold a generally positive view of the emerging science and believe the technology’s potential benefits outweigh its perceived risks. At the same time, most Americans do not trust business leaders in the nanotechnology industry to minimize potential risks to humans.
Those are some of the key findings of a study conducted by North Carolina State University researchers in the first nationally representative survey designed to gauge the public’s perceptions about nanotechnology. The telephone survey polled a random sample of 1,536 adults in the continental United States in the spring of 2004.
In choosing which potential risk from a list of five was the most important to avoid, most respondents (32 percent) picked "losing personal privacy to tiny new surveillance devices." Others wanted to avoid "a nanotechnology inspired arms race" (24 percent); "breathing nano-sized particles that accumulate in your body" (19 percent); "economic disruption caused by the loss of traditional jobs" (14 percent); and the science-fiction scenario of "the uncontrollable spread of self-replicating nano-robots" depicted in Michael Crichton’s novel, Prey (12 percent).
Fascinating to learn that economic disruption, arms races, and privacy -- issues that CRN has raised concern about -- are three of the top four identified risks. Surprising to see that Crichton's rogue nanobeasts do not rank higher, and that the widely reported worry about inhaling nanoparticles is third, and not first.
Respondents were also asked to choose the most important potential benefit from nanotechnology from a list of five options. A majority (57 percent) cited "new and better ways to detect and treat human diseases." Despite nanotechnology’s potential to deliver "cheaper, longer-lasting consumer products", only 4 percent of those surveyed identified that as the most important benefit. Sixteen percent selected "new and better ways to clean up the environment"; 12 percent chose "increased national security and defense capabilities"; and 11 percent identified ways to "improve human physical and mental abilities" as the most important benefit.
Again, we agree with survey respondents that among the worthiest goals for nanotechnology are improving human health and cleaning up our environment -- not just better nanopants. Perhaps our efforts are having a wider impact than we thought!