UK public opinion survey reveals nanotechnology's small profile

March 18, 2004

Brussels, 17 Mar 2004

A public opinion poll published jointly by the UK's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering on 15 March reveals that the vast majority of the British public have no idea what nanotechnology is.

The survey revealed that just 29 per cent of people claim to have heard of nanotechnology, while only 19 per cent were able to give any definition of it, whether correct or not. However, of those who were able to provide a definition, 68 per cent said that they thought nanotechnology would 'make things better in the future'.

The poll was carried out by BMRB, and forms part of the work of the joint Royal Society-Royal Academy of Engineering working group on nanotechnology. The working group is charged with producing a comprehensive report on nanotechnology for the UK Office of Science and Technology by the summer of 2004.

Responding to the results of the public opinion poll, working group member Professor Nick Pidgeon said: '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.'

Also published on 15 March were the results of two workshops organised by the working group to explore the public's views in more depth. These events provoked mixed reactions when the concept of nanotechnology was explained to participants.

On the positive side, participants expressed the view that nanotechnology would lead to smaller goods, such as computers, resulting in better performance and usability. People were also excited by the possible medical applications of the technology, and its potential impact on materials and cosmetic products.

However, the increased miniaturisation that nanotechnology promises also prompted fears regarding the use of surveillance equipment and loss of privacy. During the workshops, 'Participants drew a parallel with GM [genetic modification] 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,' the results claim.

Participants expressed a strong desire to see nanotechnology controlled and regulated, but were less certain of the role that public opinion should play in this process. It was argued that the government and scientists do not have the right to make decisions on people's behalf, but others also expressed a lack of confidence that the public voice would be listened to even if it did enter the debate on nanotechnology.

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CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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