Lancaster University

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Public attitudes towards Nanotechnology

11/25/2005 12:17:49

Lancaster University has carried out the first in-depth study into public responses towards nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology promises to be one of the defining technologies of the 21st century. Based on the ability to measure, manipulate and organise material on the nanoscale - 1 to 100 billionths of a metre - it is set to have dramatic and potentially disruptive impacts across the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, materials science and engineering.

The £270, 000 ESRC funded project - Nanotechnology, Risk and Sustainability: Moving Public Engagement Upstream - aims to explore ways of engaging with the public and consulting them about the research and development of nanotechnology.

Existing quantitative research suggests that the public has a relatively limited knowledge of nanotechnology. However the findings of the Lancaster project suggest that a number of underlying factors may generate substantial public concern in years to come.

Researchers based in Lancaster University’s Institute for Environment, Philosophy and Public Policy - Matthew Kearnes, Phil Macnaghten and Brian Wynne - in partnership with the leading UK think tank Demos, held a series of ten focus groups in Manchester and London with carefully selected members of the public, ranging from mothers of young children to men in the caring professions to women employed in the service economy.

During the group discussions, members of the public raised a series of concerns over the future applications of nanotechnology and their likely impacts on day-to-day life. These included:

  • Safety - concern over the potential toxicity of nanoparticles, particularly in cosmetics.
  • Privacy - concern about increased surveillance capacities enabled by nano-scale components and how this could radically impinge on everyday freedoms.
  • Nature - concern that nanotechnology could open the door to further radical interference with nature with potentially irretrievable consequences.
  • The body - concern that nanotechnology could be used to radically enhance the body and its natural capabilities, leading ultimately to utopian visions of ‘better humans’.

    These concerns reflect broader societal concern for governance and responsibility in science. Such concerns are not simply about the safety and risk of a new technology, but raise more fundamental questions about where technological advance is taking is and what kinds of futures are being presented.

    The project culminated in a face-to-face meeting between 12 nanoscientists and 12 members of the public at the Natural History Museum in London in November this year.

    Reflecting on the event Dr Matthew Kearnes of Lancaster University said: "Whilst it was recognised that there might be real benefit from nanotechnology - particularly in the medical and energy domains - there also emerged a sense of anxiety around questions regarding who is driving and who is responsible for nanotechnology."

    Dr Phil Macnaghten, also of Lancaster University, said: "There was a strong feeling during this event that there was a collective lack of responsibility and oversight for nanotechnology. Many of the nanoscientists shared these concerns and agreed that this presented a collective dilemma for society. This common understanding between two very different communities proves that members of the public can meaningfully engage in dialogue with bench scientists to discuss what is at stake in emerging nanotechnologies and to begin to articulate what governance structures may be required. Such dialogue is critical if we are to ensure that nano-science proceeds in a sustainable and socially-resilient manner."

    One of the members of the public attending the event said: "It was fascinating to meet some of the scientists working on nano projects and to find out a bit more about possible applications. Some of the potential developments we discussed would clearly be of great benefit (for example, in the fields of medical diagnosis and solar energy) but I also find the ‘lack of accountability’ issue worrying. I certainly won't be buying any cosmetics with a nano USP without more information however."

    This concern was shared by the eminent nano-scientist Prof Richard Jones of Sheffield University who said: "One of the interesting things that came out in the discussion was this worry about ‘who is in charge’. I think it’s a natural human assumption to think that there is someone or some organisation that has the power to initiate change or to prevent it, if it is judged undesirable. But that’s not how science works in a liberal, globalised, market-driven system. I think this realisation that there really isn’t anyone in charge - not just in nanotechnology or any other part of science, but in all sorts of aspects of modern life - is what so many people find so frightening about the world we live in. But is there any alternative?"

    The results of the study ‘Nanotechnology, Risk and Sustainability: Moving Public Engagement Upstream’ will be fully analysed over the coming months and a brief documentary will be produced and launched in 2006.