National survey findings released today indicate that Americans' awareness of nanotechnology remains low. Popular awareness is nearly as small as the tiny nanoscale materials and nano-enabled devices and products now flowing onto the market from this rapidly progressing technology that experts believe will usher in a new industrial revolution.
The poll also finds that most Americans continue to prefer that government, not industry, oversee and manage risks associated with advances in new areas of science and technology like nanotech, even though public confidence in U.S. regulatory agencies overall is declining.
The poll, a follow up to a similar poll conducted last year, surveyed 1,014 U.S. adults by telephone on August 27-28. It, as well as the prior poll, was commissioned by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (www.nanotechproject.org) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and conducted by independent research firm Peter D. Hart Research.
Even with an estimated $50 billion worth of nanotechnology manufactured goods on the global market last year, only 6 percent of Americans – or fewer than one in 16 – say they have “heard a lot” about nanotechnology, as compared with 10 percent in 2006. In 2007, 21 percent say they have “heard some” about nanotechnology, unchanged from the previous year. Similarly, as in 2006, about 70 percent of adults say they have heard “just a little” or “nothing at all.”
Women of all ages, older Americans, and individuals with less education and lower incomes are least likely to have heard about nanotechnology.
“Even though the number of nanotechnology-enabled consumer products – from dietary supplements to skin products to electronic devices – has more than doubled to over 500 products since last year (www.nanotechproject.org/consumerproducts), the ‘needle' on public awareness of nanotechology remains stuck at disappointingly low levels,” says David Rejeski, director of the Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “Efforts to inform the public have not kept pace with the growth of this new technology area. This increases the danger that the slightest bump – even a false alarm about safety or health – could undermine public confidence, engender consumer mistrust, and, as a result, damage the future of nanotechnology, before the most exciting applications are realized. If they do not effectively engage a broad swath of the public in steering the course of nanotechnology, government and industry risk squandering a tremendous opportunity.”
Specific polling questions examined opinions on the safety of our food system as well as the use of nanotechnology in food packaging and products. Over 60 percent of the public feels that the food supply has become less safe in recent years. Of the federal agencies most responsible for food safety, all earn similar public-confidence ratings: 57 percent to 59 percent of adults say they have at least a “fair amount” of confidence in the agencies' ability to maximize benefits and minimize risks stemming from advances in science and technology.
Key findings specific to food and nanotechnology include:
Other key findings from the 2007 poll include:
“As in previous polls, the results of this survey indicate that public wants more information about nanotechnology. Most Americans will be reluctant to use nano food and food-related products until they know enough to evaluate the merits of these products,” according to Rejeski.
Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies on PewHealth.org.