Science and Technology Innovation Program

Wilson Center Launches New Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Cover story from October 2005 issue of Centerpoint

Oct 04, 2005

Imagine swallowing a small capsule filled with chemotherapy drugs to destroy a cancerous tumor. Imagine better treatments, if not cures, for other diseases such as diabetes. Imagine having improved consumer products such as biodegradable trash bags, less toxic paint, and stain-resistant clothing. Imagine more nutritious food, less contaminated water, and more efficient, less costly energy sources. These are just a few of the discoveries that scientists have been working on via nanotechnology. Yet the American public knows so little about this revolutionary field of science that increasingly will touch our everyday lives in innumerable ways.

What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is the science of working with matter at the scale of one-billionth of a meter, or less than 1-100,000th the width of a human hair. Researchers are working with these tiny molecules to build and reengineer familiar substances like carbon and gold to create new materials with unique properties and functions. No longer confined to the work of a few specialized physicists and chemists, nanotechnology has become a global industrial enterprise, offering limitless possibilities from super-lightweight materials to detectors for anthrax and other biohazards.

Around the world, governments and corporations are investing billions of dollars annually into researching and developing nanotechnologies, more than $2 billion in the United States alone. In fact, the National Science Foundation anticipates nanotechnology-related goods and services could generate $1 trillion worldwide by 2015.

With nanotechnology poised as the wave of the future, the Woodrow Wilson Center has launched the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which focuses on long-term, strategic issues facing the public sector. The Project was created in partnership with Pew Charitable Trusts, which has invested $3 million over the next two years toward this initiative. This Project aims to help businesses, governments, and the public anticipate and manage possible health and environmental implications.

Currently, there already are more than 700 nanotechnology products on the market, including cosmetics, paints, computer screens, tennis rackets, clothing, and pharmaceuticals. Yet public awareness about these products, and nanotechnology in general, is remarkably low which, if not adequately addressed by government and industry, could trigger mistrust and suspicion, rather than consumer support and anticipation for further innovation.

"Understanding baseline public knowledge—the facts Americans have, the hopes they hold, and the skepticisms they may harbor—is an important role this Project can play," said Maureen Byrnes, director of the Health and Human Services Program at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

In an effort to gauge the public's awareness and perceptions, the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, and possible risk-management strategies, the Project will convene events with leaders from government and industry, and produce reports, case studies, and analyses. The first such report—unveiled on September 8—revealed important insights into public attitudes and aspirations.

Perceptions and Trust
The report, "Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government," presents results of a study conducted in June by Jane Macoubrie, a social scientist and senior advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Macoubrie worked with 177 private citizens in Dallas, Texas; Cleveland, Ohio; and Spokane, Washington to discern their perceptions of nanotechnology and its oversight.

The study shows the American public is excited about the improvements and inventions that nanotechnology can bring, but they are equally concerned about its risks, particularly the long-term human health and environmental effects, as well as the ability of government and the private sector to manage those risks.

Last year, Macoubrie and colleague Michael Cobb surveyed 1,250 people and found that 95 percent of respondents said they distrusted government and industry to manage the risks associated with nanotechnology, if "don't know" is taken to mean lack of trust. This astounding statistic prompted Macoubrie's study, which aims to delve deeper into the issue of public trust.

For nanotechnology to thrive, "the federal government and industry need to put as much energy into building public trust as they do into developing new nano applications," said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

The new study, as well as the 2004 study, revealed low public awareness of nanotechnology. Of those who had heard of nanotechnology, 42 percent cited either word-of-mouth or public radio and television as their sources of information, but professed to know little about it. Respondents were inclined to reflect upon medical and technology flaws from the past, such as asbestos, dioxin, and Vioxx, reinforcing their concerns about proper precautions, as well as the need for reliable information.

But Macoubrie took her study a step further. After having participants answer a pre-study questionnaire, they each received balanced, clearly written information on nanotechnology and the agencies responsible for oversight. They also were divided into focus groups, each receiving information on specific areas such as consumer products, agriculture, and medicine.

Across all experimental groups, participants expressed the most interest in possible medical advances from nanotechnology. But, in addition, participants also expressed less trust of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) after learning about medical applications.

"Medicine is the most controversial, but the public perceives the greatest opportunities here," said Macoubrie. They also want better precautions to ensure these advancements one day do not cause more trouble than they alleviate, she said. Participants also expressed optimism about better consumer products, environmental protection, safer and more nutritious food, and improved energy and electronics. And 3 percent cited improvements to enhance national security.

The study found that trust in some agencies increased after participants received information about the responsibilities of the various regulatory agencies—such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration—although trust in the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture dropped. Respondents placed their least trust in Congress, which they worried might undermine regulatory protections. The study found participants were concerned with possible lack of government expertise to handle nanotechnology, political manipulation, and coordination problems across multiple agencies.

Addressing the Public's Concerns
While the majority of study participants believed the benefits would outweigh the risks, they cited numerous concerns about nanotechnology, most notably the unknowns, regulation, and human health risks. Other concerns included long-term health risks, ineffective or over-restrictive regulations, and lack of information available to consumers.

Having stated their concerns, participants also were clear in their recommendations. "Better [product safety] testing is one of the first things they want," said Macoubrie, "and industry should pay attention to that." They also underscored the need to disseminate more information about nanotechnology products, long-term health and environmental impacts, and whether regulation is sufficiently protecting workers and the environment. They want government-mandated standards, deeming voluntary standards to be inadequate to address the possible risks associated with nanotechnology.

"Industry has an enormous opportunity here to get out in front, to join with the public in a productive dialogue on how to address these kinds of concerns," said Macoubrie. "In the end," Rejeski said, "the kinds of safety measures and disclosure the public wants make sense in terms of both long-term corporate strategy and good public policy."

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