Nanotoxicology and Public Perception

David M. Berube1,2

1 Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCOST) Project, North Carolina State University,  Department of Communication, Campus Box 8104, Raleigh, North Carolina, 27695-8104, USA.
2 Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT), P.O. Box 90287, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0287, USA.

Consumption, outreach, participation, engagement (COPE) are four terms associated with the public as stakeholders. In an effort to include the public in science and technology policy decision making, government institutions, especially grant awarding agencies demand some public interaction by the research community. As a result, we have a plethora of activities from informal science at our museums to long-term engagement consensus conferences. We have learned the more the public interacts with the research community the more suspicious they become about issues of risk. What else have we learned?

The public does not hold strong opinions on the health and safety of nanoparticles per se. Indeed, unprimed data indicates less than half of the public know what nanotechnology is though another 40 percent believe it has something to do with size. For most Americans, nanoscience is of little interest and few pay attention to news about it. This may help account for the leveling of opinion evidenced by social science research between 2004 and 2007.

From our data, we have learned when experts are asked to rank applications that might have a problematic environmental health and safety (EHS) footprint they rank applications quite differently from the public. In addition, when experts were asked to predict what applications the public may perceive problematic, they are unable to agree with estimates by the public. Indeed, the public could not predict what experts would perceive as problematic. Importantly, the public was asked to rank nanoparticles against other known risks (to contextualize risks). Nanotechnology ranked behind stress, motor vehicle accidents, cloning, sun tanning, pesticide residues on foods, coal and oil burning plants, and radon. Nearly 60 percent of the public perceived little to no risk from nanotechnology. The only applications the public regularly applies high negative EHS footprints are food related. 

The public remains concerned about who is trustworthy to speak about nanotechnology EHS. Importantly, the source for information on nanotechnology EHS may have shifted away from non-governmental organizations. The medical community and academic based researchers are most trusted by the public for information on nanotechnology EHS. An important variable determining public perceptions of risk seems to be socioeconomic rather than cultural or religious.

The public has turned away from newspapers and magazines and to television and the Internet for most of their information on science and technology EHS. Media amplification of risk data had been collected for decades on the effect of newspaper reporting on public perceptions. This data have been confounded with the arrival of the Internet and Web2.0 (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc.) known as social media. Social media is becoming a more important source of Internet-based information on science and technology especially as collected through news and personal accumulators.

This data developed in this project represents the findings of a team of researchers (North Carolina State, Rice, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Carolina) funded under the Nanotechnology Interdisciplinary Research Team grant on intuitive nanotoxicity. PCOST is an unfunded participant in the CEINT. The data come from two separate instruments, collection efforts, and populations and is under submission to multiple publication outlets. We conclude social science research in the field of public understanding of science and technology should involve case studies and experimental designs. Samplings of public opinion may have run their course. To determine what roles are appropriate and acceptable to stakeholders in the public spheres of science and technology policy, new research tools may need to brought to bear on the subject.