"Nanotechnology" a mystery to 80% of U.S. population

New Haven (CT) - A recent survey conducted by members of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School found that eight out of ten Americans have no clear understanding of the term nanotechnology - however, nine out of ten hold an opinion about its benefits and risks. Future education will determine how nanotechnology will be perceived by the public, the study concludes.

Despite most U.S. consumers already have purchased at least one product that includes a nanotechnology device in its general meaning, the majority of Americans have not been confronted with this term so far. According to a web-based survey with 1800 participants, more than 80% of U.S. respondents had heard "little" or "nothing at all" about nanotechnology. Interestingly, the term nanotechnology apparently holds enough information in itself to allow people to form an opinion about it: More than 90% of respondents held an opinion about whether nanotechnology's benefits would outweigh its risks, even when supplied with no additional information, the authors of the study said.

The U.S. public's perception of nanotechnology is up for grabs. It could divide along the lines of nuclear power, global warming and other contentious environmental issues absent a major public education and engagement effort by industry, government, civic groups and scientists. People who know little or nothing about 'nanotechnology' instantly react in an emotionally charged way to the concept, and their opinions divide along cultural lines as they learn more about it," according to Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law School.

Kahan said that Americans tend to go with their instinct when asked about nanotechnology. Their instinct typically reflects their views toward other issues like climate change and nuclear power. "When they learn more, they tend to adopt a stance about nanotechnology that fits their political and cultural predispositions," Kahan said.

Don Braman, a professor at The George Washington University and co-author of the study, said that "nothing in [these] findings suggests that public polarization over nanotechnology is inevitable. Our results indicate that another outcome is possible but unlikely unless government, business, and educators take a more proactive approach to nanotechnology public engagement and communication. How people learn about nanotechnologies, from whom, and with what message, will be critical to public perceptions in the future."

Nanotechnology is typically defined as the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. Among others, the microprocessor industry has entered the nanotechnology space several years ago: For example, Intel's 90 nm processors were introduced in 2003.