Stop Killer Robots

What do the public think of nano?

Questions have certainly been raised about nanotechnology, but what do the public think?

Over the past decade or so, nanotechnology has captured the headlines. From the threat of grey goo to potentially life-saving techniques, stories have covered a spectrum of opinions on the topic. Many different sources help form public attitudes to new technologies. Most notable is the media. It heavily influences the public’s opinion, and sometimes certain subjects are overhyped or unfairly criticised as a result.

As with other new technologies, such as genetically modified crops and nuclear power, public attitudes play a crucial part in making it possible to realise the potential of technological advances. But after the initial media overload in the mid-2000s, the dust has arguably settled on the world of nano. We can now ask: after a decade or so, where does the public stand today on nanotechnology?

In the UK

Ten years ago, a Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering opinion poll showed that just 29 per cent of the public had heard of nanotechnology. In a 2014 survey carried out by Ipsos MORI, this figure had risen to 65 per cent. This may seem like a marked improvement, but compare it to the 93 per cent of people who have heard of GM crops and the 90 per cent who have heard of stem cell research – other science topics that have faced significant opposition.

In addition, just because the majority of the public have heard of nano doesn’t mean they know about the topic. In fact, 85 per cent of the people in that 2014 survey said they felt ill informed about nanotechnology. The same can be said for GM and stem cells; in both of these cases, the majority of people felt under-informed.

There’s no doubt that there are still many unknowns when it comes to nanotechnology. This fact has been widely publicised. But still, as in 2004, it would seem that the majority of the UK public believed that this message has not been successfully conveyed. Despite this, the general view is that the potential benefits of nanotechnology outweigh the potential harms.

Elsewhere

Projects are underway to attempt to better understand general opinions about nanotechnology in Europe. Nanopinion is an online poll that’s posing questions to everyone in Europe about nanotechnology, from ‘Should citizens be asked about what innovations we want to be developed with nanotechnologies?’ to ‘Do you think hi-tech products such as nanoproducts will just be affordable to wealthy people?’ You can go online and voice your own opinion on nanotechnology at the Nanopinion website.

The last formal gauge of European public opinion was taken in 2010. In this study, only 45 per cent of respondents had heard of nanotechnology. Of those, 20 per cent had only heard of it and hadn’t engaged with it: they had never spoken about it or searched for information on it.

Clearly, both inside and outside the UK, there is a lack of public engagement with new technologies, especially nanotechnology. Whether this is due to a lack of motivation or because it’s hard to know where to go to learn more is unclear.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topic:
Biotechnology and engineering
Issue:
Nanoscience
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development