The Public Will Walk With Nanotech — For Now

A generally risk-averse population in the Western world has so far been surprisingly welcoming of nanotechnology, a new meta-study finds.
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Like belching smokestacks in the 1800s, new technology once was something to be uncritically welcomed; now the public often keeps it at arm's length as a default position. Milk from an enhanced cow? No thanks. Transgenic corn for famine victims? We'll pass. Various helpful chemicals in our plastics? Pesticides that keep voracious insects off our produce? Irradiation to kill much smaller even nastier pests?

Whether you view such risk-averse opponents as Luddites, prophets or something in-between, they're still out there in abundance.

Nanotechnology, on the other hand, has so far avoided much of the knee-jerk opposition that other technologies have faced, apart from the almost de rigueur swipe by the late Michael Crichton and the ubiquitous naked protester or two. It's not that no one's concerned, as our David Richardson pointed out in May, but rather that there's been no sustained popular outcry. Perhaps it's that the technology is still in the "gee-whiz" phase that Emilio Mordini at the Centre for Science, Society and Citizenship has described.

And a new meta-study by Canadian and U.S. academics finds that the public overall is rather well-disposed to nanotechnology just now. Well, it actually doesn't say that; it reads, "Overall participants across survey studies regard nanotechnology as resulting in more benefits than risks, and familiarity with this new technology does correspond to positive evaluations of its applications."

It's that malleability, and not the absence of pitchfork-waving opponents, that the authors of "Anticipating the perceived risk of nanotechnologies" (released online by the journal Nature Nanotechnology on Sunday) highlight. Their paper looked at 22 other studies conducted in Europe, North America and Japan since 2004, and found that lots of people didn't really know a lot about nanotech, and in their ignorance tended to not be bothered by it. Pros outnumbered cons three-to-one, the study found.

It helps that even as the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies notes there are now 1,000 "nanotechnology-enabled products" available to consumers, there hasn't been a colossal screw-up to tarnish nanotech's reputation and galvanize opposition. (It's an open question whether less-smelly socks and spiffy tanning products are the best ambassadors for a largely untried new technology, but we'll let that one rest for now.)

As lead author Terre Satterfield of the University of British Columbia (and a collaborator with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara) was quoted in a release about the paper, "It's much easier to destroy trust than to gain it. ... The future is yet to be written. Judgments could go either way." That smell-free socks haven't killed anyone likely won't be enough to continue these halcyon times, either. "It's not true that if a technology has benefits it will automatically get accepted by the public," added co-author Milind Kandlikar, also of UBC and CNS.

In fact, the first deaths linked to nanotech, however tangentially, were reported last month. A dispatch from Reuters noted that seven Chinese women - "working for months without proper protection in a paint factory using nanoparticles" - suffered permanent lung damage and two died. Whether that's more a commentary on nanotechnology or China's cavalier-at-best workplace safety regime can be argued, but nanotech particles were still the proximate cause of death. "These cases arouse concern that long term exposure to some nanoparticles without protective measures may be related to serious damage to human lungs," Chinese toxicologist Yuguo Song and two others wrote in the European Respiratory Journal.

One key concept the paper's authors pitch at nanotech regulators is to provide an unvarnished accounting of the technology's risks as well as its putative benefits. "If you only talk about benefits it doesn't mean the public will buy the product and everyone lives happily ever after. We know that is not a good scenario," the release quoted co-author Barbara Herr Harthorn, director of CNS and a noted researcher into risk perception. So leavening the gee-whiz with a solid -- and pre-meltdown -- accounting of the "oh crap!" may be the best medicine for all.

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