Survey says Americans fear what they don’t know — but they are learning fast

By Andreas von Bubnoff
Small Times Contributing Editor

Sept. 20, 2006 — The percentage of Americans who know at least something about nanotechnology has doubled in the past two years, according to a national poll released on Tuesday by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.

At the same time, more people believe that nanotechnology has more risks than benefits, according to the poll, which was commissioned by the Wilson Center and conducted in August by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. The poll also found that the public trusts the government and universities more than companies when it comes to minimizing the risks of nanotechnology.

The announcement of the poll came two days before a Congressional hearing scheduled for Thursday which will ask the federal government about its research activities on the environmental and health risks of nanotechnology, and how much money it spends for this type of research.

The telephone poll, which interviewed 1,014 American adults, found that 30 percent know at least something about nanotechnology, compared with 16 percent in 2004.

It also found that 35 percent see more risks, as opposed to 15 percent who see more benefits. Almost half of those who have heard a lot about nanotechnology see more benefits, but only 2 percent of those who have heard nothing about nanotech see more benefits, the poll found.

“The less you know, the more skeptical and fearful you are about nanotech,” said Geoffrey Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

This means that the government needs to do more of the public outreach mandated by Congress in December 2003 in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, said David Rejeski, director of the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. But he said not enough has happened since then. “It’s not enough to put stuff into museums and getting articles into science magazines,” he said. “It’s really about going out there and talking with people.”

The group perhaps most likely to use nanotech products such as cosmetics — women older than 50 — knows the least about nanotech, the poll found. Hart Research Associates also asked women in focus groups to discuss risks and benefits of nanotechnology in cosmetics. Women were more skeptical if they had children, Rejeski said, and many were surprised that there was little governmental oversight of cosmetics products that use nanomaterials.

“To hear that there are potential risks and no regulation, no oversight, just really made them more skeptical,” said Abigail Davenport, vice president at Hart Research Associates, who led the focus groups. There has been an ongoing debate in the nanotech sector over whether nanomaterials and other nanotechnologies need legislation that specifically covers their use, or whether existing legislation is fit to cover nanotech products.

When it comes to minimizing the risks of nanotechnology, the public’s trust is more with the government and universities than with companies, the poll found. The poll found that 69 percent say they trust the USDA and 61 percent say they trust the FDA to minimize risks, but only 49 percent trust companies. Similarly, 55 percent want the government and 54 percent want the universities to play a role in monitoring the safety and effectiveness of cosmetics, but only 43 percent want companies to play a role. Just 12 percent want companies to be the only monitor.

While most of the public appears to trust the government to address the risk of nanotechnology, it is still unclear what the government is or has been doing about studying that risk, Rejeski said. He said he expects this to be addressed in Thursday’s Congressional hearing before the House science committee.

“The government still has no strategy to deal with the environmental health and safety risk,” said Rejeski, who testified on the issue before the House science committee in November 2005. “The committee has been waiting for their strategy for a year now, and as far as we know, they won’t have a strategy by the time they meet on Thursday.”

“Last fall the administration said they were developing a detailed research plan with well laid out priorities, that it would come out in the spring of this year and would be the guide for the research activities into environment, health and safety,” said a Democratic Committee staff member who asked not to be identified. “We are still waiting to see it. So we finally decided to have a hearing to bring in the agencies and let them tell us why it’s not out yet.”

It’s unclear whether the plan will be delivered in time for the hearing, but the committee has invited Norris Alderson, who chairs the working group that is in charge of developing it. Alderson, associate commissioner for science at the Food and Drug Administration, declined to comment in advance on issues to be discussed at the hearing.

The committee has also invited Matthew Nordan of Lux Research, a nanotechnology research firm, and representatives of three federal agencies that are involved in nanotech-risk related research: the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy.

Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor to the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, will also testify before the committee. Maynard wrote a report, published in July, that pointed to Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies estimates that in 2005, government agencies spent almost $11 million on research that is specifically focused on health and environmental risks associated with nanotechnology. This is different from the government’s own estimates, according to which the government spent almost $40 million on nanotech risk related research between October 2005 and September 2006.

Thursday’s hearing will likely address this discrepancy, the Democratic Committee staff member said.

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