Topic Name: Human health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology are a bigger worry for scientists than for the public
Research persons: Dietram Scheufele
Location: University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States
The unknown human health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology are a
bigger worry for scientists than for the public, according to a new report
published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
The new report was based on a national telephone survey of American
households and a sampling of 363 leading U.S. nanotechnology scientists and
engineers. It reveals that those with the most insight into a technology with
enormous potential -- and that is already emerging in hundreds of products --
are unsure what health and environmental problems might be posed by the
"Scientists aren't saying there are problems," says the study's
lead author Dietram Scheufele, a University of
Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication and journalism.
"They're saying, 'we don't know. The research hasn't been done.'"
The new findings are in stark contrast to controversies sparked by the advent
of technologies of the past such as nuclear power and genetically modified
foods, which scientists perceived as having lower risks than did the public.
Nanotechnology rests on science's newfound ability to manipulate matter at
the smallest scale, on the order of molecules and atoms. The field has enormous
potential to develop applications ranging from new antimicrobial materials and
tiny probes to sample individual cells in human patients to vastly more powerful
computers and lasers. Already products with nanotechnology built in include such
things as golf clubs, tennis rackets and antimicrobial food storage containers.
At the root of the information disconnect, explains Scheufele, who conducted
the survey with Elizabeth Corley at Arizona State
University, is that
nanotechnology is only now starting to emerge on the nation's policy agenda.
Amplifying the problem is that the news media have paid scant attention to
nanotechnology and its implications.
"In the long run, this information disconnect could undermine public
support for federal funding in certain areas of nanotechnology research,"
"Nanotechnology is starting to emerge on the policy agenda, but with the
public, it's not on their radar," says Scheufele. "That's where we
have the largest communication gap."
While scientists were generally optimistic about the potential benefits of
nanotechnology, they expressed significantly more concern about pollution and
new health problems related to the technology. Potential health problems were in
fact the highest rated concern among scientists, Scheufele notes.
Twenty percent of the scientists responding to the survey indicated a concern
that new forms of nanotechnology pollution may emerge, while only 15 percent of
the public thought that might be a problem. More than 30 percent of scientists
expressed concern that human health may be at risk from the technology, while
just 20 percent of the public held such fears.
Of more concern to the American public, according to the Nature
Nanotechnology report, are a potential loss of privacy from tiny new
surveillance devices and the loss of more U.S jobs. Those fears were less of a
concern for scientists.
While scientists wonder about the health and environmental implications of
the new technology, their ability to spark public conversation seems to be
limited, Scheufele says. "Scientists tend to treat communication as an
afterthought. They're often not working with social scientists, industry or
interest groups to build a channel to the public," he says.
The good news for scientists, Scheufele explains, is that of all sources of
nanotechnology information, they are the most trusted by the public.
"I think the public wants to know more. The applications are out there
and that concern gap has to be addressed," Scheufele argues. "The
climate for having that discourse is perfect. There is definitely a huge
opportunity for scientists to communicate with a public who trusts them."
Note for Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology refers broadly to a field of applied science and technology whose unifying theme is the control of matter on the atomic and molecular scale, normally 1 to 100 nanometers, and the fabrication of devices within that size range. It is a highly multidisciplinary field, drawing from fields such as applied physics, materials science, interface and colloid science, device physics, supramolecular chemistry, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. Much speculation exists as to what new science and technology may result from these lines of research. Nanotechnology can be seen as an extension of existing sciences into the nanoscale, or as a recasting of existing sciences using a newer, more modern term.
Two main approaches are used in nanotechnology. In the "bottom-up" approach, materials and devices are built from molecular components which assemble themselves chemically by principles of molecular recognition. In the "top-down" approach, nano-objects are constructed from larger entities without atomic-level control. The impetus for nanotechnology comes from a renewed interest in Interface and Colloid Science, coupled with a new generation of analytical tools such as the atomic force microscope (AFM), and the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Combined with refined processes such as electron beam lithography and molecular beam epitaxy, these instruments allow the deliberate manipulation of nanostructures, and led to the observation of novel phenomena.
Note for Nuclear power
Nuclear power is a type of nuclear technology involving the controlled use of nuclear fission to release energy for work including propulsion, heat, and the generation of electricity. Nuclear energy is produced by a controlled nuclear chain reaction and creates heat—which is used to boil water, produce steam, and drive a steam turbine. The turbine can be used for mechanical work and also to generate electricity.
The United States produces the most nuclear energy, with nuclear power providing 20% of the electricity it consumes, while France produces the highest percentage of its electrical energy from nuclear reactors—80% as of
2006. In the European Union as a whole, nuclear energy provides 30% of the
electricity. Nuclear energy policy differs between European Union countries, and some, such as Austria and Ireland, have no active nuclear power stations. In comparison France has a large number of these plants, with 16 currently in use.
Dietram A. Scheufele is Professor of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin. He is also Wisconsin PI of the NSF-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU) and serves on the steering committee of the Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies.
Prior to joining UW, Scheufele was a tenured faculty member at Cornell University. He has served as Director of Graduate Studies at both Cornell and Wisconsin, and teaches courses in Research and Strategy, Research Methods, Public Opinion and the Life Sciences, Media and Politics, and Digital Democracy.
Scheufele has published extensively in the areas of public opinion and political communication, and his work on framing effects, public participation and related issues is cited regularly in the academic literature. As coordinator of the Communication Technologies Research Cluster at UW, he is especially interested in the role that new communication technologies play in political campaigns.
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