Science and Technology Innovation Program

Nanotechnology: The Power of Small

Apr 01, 2008

As companies invest billions of dollars in nanotechnology—from consumer products to medical applications—public awareness of these promising new forms of science remains dramatically low. Since its inception in 2005, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), supported by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, has researched and released reports on the growing list of nanotechnology products and their accompanying benefits as well as some of the potential environmental and health risks.

To reach an even broader audience, PEN and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have teamed up to promote a television series on public broadcasting stations in April. "Nanotechnology: The Power of Small" is the first major television series to look at the implications of advances in nanotechnology—the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture materials that are usually between one and 100 nanometers in size. (A human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide.) More than $60 billion in products incorporating nanotechnology were sold globally in 2007 and by 2014, estimates reveal this figure will grow to almost $3 trillion annually, according to Lux Research, Inc.

The three-part public television series explores critical questions about nanotechnology's potential impact on privacy, the environment, and human health: Will nanotechnology make you safer, or will it be used to track your every move? Will nanotechnology keep you young, and what happens if you live to be 150? Will nanotechnology help clean up the earth, or will it be the next asbestos?

PEN Chief Science Advisor Andrew Maynard will be one of several featured experts in the episode on environmental safety. "We first must raise awareness of what nano is, what it can do, but also its challenges," Maynard told Centerpoint. In describing a nanometer's size, Maynard compares going from human-scale objects to the nanoscale with shrinking the moon down to the size of a tennis ball. "It's a huge leap in size," he said. He underscored the importance of public awareness as the field of nanotechnology grows. "As the world gets smaller and people communicate faster, we all must be engaged in the science and development of new products and processes."

The public television series is a "Fred Friendly Seminars" presentation featuring award-winning National Public Radio correspondent John Hockenberry as host. Hockenberry asks policymakers, scientists, journalists, and community leaders to wrestle with difficult but essential issues about nanotechnology's potential to impact people's privacy and security, health and environment.

Featured experts include Harvard University researcher George M. Whitesides and author Joel Garreau, among others. Maynard said the series incorporates various scenarios and role plays "to explore complex issues in an accessible way."

The Woodrow Wilson Center will host the Washington premiere event for the television series on Wednesday, April 2. The event includes remarks by Maynard, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), a co-chair of the Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus and Arden L. Bement, Jr., director of the National Science Foundation. More information about the series is available here.

Public Perceptions
Nanotechnology is increasingly incorporated into many consumer products: food, clothing, sports equipment, electronics, cosmetics, sunscreen, among many others, each raising a different set of potential questions and concerns. Yet much of the public remains ill-informed about the technology in the first place.

Complicating public awareness is the miniscule size of a nanometer. "Because we can't see it, we don't know what it looks like," said Maynard. "A skillet and a knife are both made of iron, [and though they serve different functions], both can either do good or do harm; that's obvious just by looking at them. The same goes for nanometer scale materials, but because we cannot see them with our naked eyes, it's easy to forget that their shape, as well as what they're made of, is important."

While nanotechnology is a burgeoning industry, it's interesting to note how little the public knows about it, if anything, and when the public lacks information, that
raises fears and concerns. And if people fear or don't like nanotech products, clearly that's bad for business. Developing technology without involving the public could create a consumer backlash, said Maynard, as they fear others are making decisions for them and then perhaps the risks would seem disproportionate to the benefits.

Two polls supported and released last year by PEN confirmed the public's lack of awareness of nanotechnology. A national phone survey of 1,000 people, conducted by the independent firm Peter D. Hart Research Associates, revealed that 70 percent of Americans have heard little or nothing about nanotechnology. The poll also revealed that most Americans continue to prefer that government, not industry, oversee and manage possible risks associated with scientific and technological advances, even though public confidence in U.S. regulatory agencies overall is declining.

"Efforts to inform the public have not kept pace with the growth of this new technology area," said David Rejeski, director of PEN. "This increases the danger that the slightest bump—even a false alarm about safety or health—could undermine public confidence, engender consumer mistrust, and, as a result, damage the future of nanotechnology, before the most exciting applications are realized. If they do not effectively engage a broad swath of the public in steering the course of nanotechnology, government and industry risk squandering a tremendous opportunity."

"Nanotechnology should be a partnership among industry, government, and the public," Maynard said, "Giving the public a say is the way to develop socially responsible science."

Gauging Public Acceptance
Earlier last year, a Web-based public opinion survey of 1,800 people conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project found that emotions and values factored into the public's reaction to information about nanotechnology. Those less skeptical of industry focused on the benefits whereas others, when given the same information, focused more on the risks.

"Just providing the public with factual scientific information will not guarantee popular acceptance and support," said Rejeski. "The window of opportunity for reaching out to the public about nanotechnology—before polarization occurs—is closing fast."

As the public becomes more aware of nanotechnology, how will they decide to trust a new product or new technology? Current research is confirming results of earlier polls that found people go with their gut reactions and instincts when presented with new, potentially controversial, inventions.

This new research on public attitudes and risk perceptions from the Cultural Cognition Project led by Dan Kahan of Yale Law School reveals that people will turn to a respected figure, who shares their general outlook, for guidance. If that figure reinforces the benefits of nanotechnology, his or her adherents tend to follow that opinion. The recent PEN publication on Kahan's findings, released in February, reports, "Since credibility depends on trust, which depends largely on shared cultural outlooks, parties interested in communicating accurate information should be attentive to assuring they avail themselves of information providers of diverse cultural orientations. In this condition of ‘advocacy pluralism,' members of the public are less likely to divide along cultural lines."

One way to build upon public trust is to provide the public with ample information as it becomes available. A first-time legal analysis, released by PEN, finds that a federal toxics reporting statute could be applied to the production and commercialization of nanotechnology, which would provide the public with more information about these revolutionary yet potentially risky technologies.

But before the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) authorities can be applied to nanomaterials, more toxicological data must be developed. Two noted environmental law experts conducted the analysis following calls from dozens of environmental, consumer, and labor groups asking for government regulation and public disclosure of products containing nanomaterials. Currently, the TRI data does not cover nanomaterials' unique characteristics.

While the public broadcasting series will reach out to many, the hope is to reach out to even more people through "NanoDays 2008", a weeklong series of community-based educational outreach programs focused on nanotechnology and engineering, sponsored by the NISE Network. "NanoDays 2008" programs are being held at science and natural history museums, universities, and policy and education centers around the nation from March 29 through April 6. The Washington premiere of "Nanotechnology: The Power of Small" is a "Nano Days 2008" special event.

Experts & Staff