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Nanotechnology and Nanoscience The Royal Society

Press releases and Media Coverage

Views of the general public about nanotechnology

The overwhelming majority of people have not heard of nanotechnology, according to the results of a public opinion poll published jointly by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering today (15 March 2004) to coincide with National Science Week. However, of those who can offer a definition of nanotechnology, most believe it will make things better in the future.

The results of the opinion poll, carried out by BMRB for the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering joint working group on nanotechnology, show that just 29% of the public claim they have heard of nanotechnology, while only 19% are able to give some definition of it, whether accurate or not. Of those who are able to offer a definition of nanotechnology, 68% said it would make things better in the future.

Commenting on the results, Professor Nick Pidgeon, a member of the working group on nanotechnology, said: “Nanotechnology involves studying and working with matter at an ultra-small scale, and a nanometre is just one-millionth of a millimetre in length. It is not really a shock to discover that most people have not heard about nanotechnology, because it is still a relatively young field. But it is perhaps a little surprising that of those people who know something about nanotechnology, most think it will have a beneficial effect on the future, in view of some of the media reports about the potential dangers of nanoparticles and nanobots turning the world into grey goo.”

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering also jointly published today (15 March 2004) the results of two workshops conducted by BMRB with the public to explore their views in more depth. These found that people responded both positively and negatively when the concept of nanotechnology was explained to them.

There was a view that the smaller length scale which nanotechnology works on would lead to smaller goods, such as computers, and would mean better performance and usability. Participants were excited by the medical possibilities arising from nanotechnology and also responded favourably to potential uses in materials and cosmetics.

However, greater miniaturisation due to nanotechnology also prompted suspicions about the use of surveillance equipment and loss of privacy, whilst others expressed concerns about how much the development of nanotechnology would cost the UK.

Participants drew a parallel with GM when considering the ethical implications of nanotechnology because of the perception that both involve changes at the most fundamental level to form something that does not occur in nature. Both GM and nanotechnology could be seen as “messing with nature” in a specific way by “manipulating the building blocks of nature”. They expressed concerns about whether scientists are trying to “play God”.

Participants were very positive towards potential uses of nanotechnology in medicine, particularly in terms of earlier diagnosis and treatments. However, they also had concerns about the long-term potential side-effects of nanotechnology, and about its reliability.

Participants were strongly in favour that an attempt should be made to control and regulate nanotechnology. Although the respondents suggested various bodies as potential regulators, they were divided over the extent to which the public should be involved. It was argued that the Government and scientists did not have the right to make decisions about nanotechnology on behalf of the public without consulting them first. But they also expressed a lack of confidence that the public voice would be listened to even if it did enter the debate about nanotechnology.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering joint working group is keen to receive views, ideas, issues and questions about nanotechnology in general and about any of the information, including the report of the market research, that is published on the study website at www.nanotec.org.uk, where comments can also be posted.

National Science Week 2004 runs from 12 until 21 March. It is co-ordinated by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and further information is available at www.the-ba.net.

Read the report: Market research on public attitudes to nanotechnology

© Copyright: The Royal Academy of Engineering
The Royal Society 2003
The Royal Academy of Engineering