Trust more important than knowledge when people assess the risks of nanotechnology
Although knowledge about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology among the general population is low, many have formed an opinion on the matter. And generally people see small risks and great benefits, shows first large study of attitude towards nanotechnology in Sweden.
Nanotechnology concerns the study and production of material on a scale of 1 to 100 nanometers. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter. There are many areas of applications of the technology and it is among other things currently used to make more efficient electrical components, and better and more durable paint. It is also used in the cosmetics industry. There are high hopes that the technology in the future might be able to revolutionize areas such as energy and medicine.
Simon Larsson, Åsa Boholm and Magnus Jansson, researchers at Gothenburg Research Institute, have studied the acceptance and attitude towards the technology among the Swedish general public. The study is the first in Sweden on the topic based on a representative selection of the population.
– For authorities and companies that want to invest large sums in developing and applying the technology the public perception and acceptance is important, says Simon Larsson, PhD in social anthropology.
The study showed large differences in acceptance depending on area of application. For uses in medicine and paint the acceptance was generally high. 97 percent and 76 percent respectively of those who had an opinion on the matter said yes when asked whether or not nanotechnology should be used in these fields. The respondents were more skeptical towards application in food production and cosmetics. Only 56 percent and 48 percent respectively approved of use in these areas. The variation in acceptability between different areas of applications are in line with previous studies in other countries.
– The positive attitude towards use in medicine can be attributed to a large perceived potential benefit. Conversely the potential benefits of use in cosmetics might be perceived to be low, thus negatively affecting acceptance. Application of nanoparticles that involves bodily contact might also affect acceptance negatively. The high level of acceptance of use within medicine despite that this means bodily contact, could be explained by an overall high trust in the regulatory authorities and testing procedures of new drugs, says Simon Larsson.
The study also showed that the knowledge of nanotechnology were low. 90 percent of the respondents in the study said that they had low or no knowledge of nanotechnology. Despite this a surprisingly large proportion of the respondents did have an opinion on the risks and benefits of the technology. 34 percent had an opinion on risks, and 41 percent had an opinion on benefits. This indicates that people do not generally base their opinions on risks and benefits of nanotechnology on actual facts and knowledge. Statistical analysis confirms that self-rated knowledge of nanotechnology does not explain variation in perceived risk.
Trust more important than knowledge
– Previous studies have shown that the general confidence and trust in science, authorities, and society as a whole matter more for the acceptance of new technology than actual knowledge about the risks and benefits of the technology in question, says Simon Larsson.
For authorities and others this is an important insight into how to communicate about nanotechnology to the public.
– Efforts to promote knowledge of the technology might not be the best way to increase the acceptance. More general efforts aimed to increase trust in science and society will probably be more effective, says Simon Larsson.
Despite that most see large perceived benefits of nanotechnology quite a few people also see great risks: 12 percent.
– This is a substantial part of the population. Companies and authorities need to take this into account if a high trust in new technology is to be maintained, says Simon Larsson.
The study also looked at how demographic factors affected the acceptance of nanotechnology. The factor that had the greatest impact was gender. It was approximately twice as likely for men to have an opinion on the risks, and men tended to see less risk than women. I was also much more common for men to have an opinion on the benefits and here also men were generally more positive towards the technology than women.
– Since both men and women stated that their knowledge of the subject was low, one way to interpret this result is that men are more likely to guess, says Simon Larsson.
Level of education also had a significant impact on the assessment of nanotechnology. Respondents with higher education were more lightly to have an opinion on the risks and benefits, and they also tended to see less risks and greater benefits.
Factors such as age and residential area (urban/rural) did not impact the view of nanotechnology.
The study was financed by The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, Mistra.
Simon Larsson, fil. dr. socialantropologi, +46 31 786 45 79, firstname.lastname@example.org