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A public risk

Nanotechnology has proved to be a gold mine for applied physics, and by 2015 recent predictions suggest that it could have generated a $1 trillion global market. That’s not very surprising: new applications for nanotechnology seem to crop up every day. Only this week, reported on an electricity-generating fabric that could be woven from nanowire fibres. But will this trend continue indefinitely?

One stumbling block might be the public, as Steve Currall, head of management science and innovation at University College London, UK, has found. In this afternoon’s talk, Consumer Attitudes Toward Nanotech, he summarized the fruits of his surveys of how the public weighs-up both the risks and benefits of nanotechnology.


The above graph, which Currall’s group published at the end of 2006 (Nature Nanotech. 1 153), shows how a randomly selected cross-section of the public rated the risks and benefits of 44 technologies, including nanotechnology. Although at first glance nanotechnology looks safe slap-bang in the middle, bear in mind that the neighbouring “SC” stands for stem-cell research, which (at least for the public) is a contentious area. “It shows that the jury is still out with regards to the public perception of nanotechnology,” said Currall.

He then presented the results of a more specific survey. His group came up with four hypothetical, innovative nanotechnology products — a medicinal drug, a skin-care product, a car tyre and a coolant — and then posed them, with various risks and benefits attached, to another cross-section of the public. (For instance, one statement might have been: “A new coolant will be more effective than the nearest non-nanotech alternative by 65%, but will pose a 12% worse influence on the atmosphere.”)

They have found that the public’s decision on whether to approve a product is based more on that product’s benefit, rather than its risk. “We didn’t expect that,” remarked Currall. I would have. Consumers should practically be defined by their tendency to see the honey and miss the bees. What was interesting, however, was that the public did not think about the benefits and risks sequentially as a proper risk assessment would. Instead, they would weigh them up simultaneously — perhaps giving a more unpredictable outcome.

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