Why Isn’t the Public Terrified of Nanotechnology?

Some conspiracy theorists are convinced that nanotechnology will destroy the world; at least one person has sent bombs to professors researching the field. But most people aren’t terribly worked up about nanotechnology, even as discussions about its safety continue. (In January, the National Research Council’s report on nanotechnology suggested that an extra $22 million to $24 million be spent in the next year to assess potential dangers posed by nanomaterials.)

Susanna Priest, the author of Nanotechnology and the Public: Risk Perception and Risk Communication, is a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who studies public perceptions of new technologies. In the Scientist, she asks, “[W]hy, when uncertainty about risks has certainly not stopped public opinion from turning sour in the past, should nano be getting the benefit of the doubt while so much of bio remains persistently controversial?”

Priest describes two incidents that could have ruined nano’s rep: a cleaning spray named “Magic Nano” in Germany that caused respiratory problems, and a factory in China where workers exposed to nanoparticles (and many chemicals) were found to have died. Neither case has ever been positively linked to nanoparticles; the cleaning spray may not have contained any, and the Chinese deaths could have been linked to the many other chemicals workers came in contact with. However, Priest wonders why these “triggering events” didn’t create public outcry anyway—after all, the public isn’t known for calmly waiting to see what careful research reveals about such stories. Many people were, and are, appalled by the idea of genetic modification. “Simply put,” she writes, “manipulating DNA simply seems to challenge our underlying cultural ideas about how the world ought to be in ways that manipulating otherwise ordinary materials does not.”

Read more on the Scientist.