The trouble with engaging the general public on nanoscale phenomena lies in the difficulty of comprehending the nature of size and scale. Most researchers achieve a level of ‘understanding’ through an acquired ability to translate nanoscale measures and events obtained through an immersion in the science. Such experiences are not applicable to the general public, and so fostering understanding requires more creative approaches.
Over the past 10 years, the various US Federal agencies have spent approximately $12 billion supporting work on the ethical, legal, and social implications of nanotechnology1. Across the globe there have been similar efforts to engage the general public on the technology to harness matter on the nanometer scale. The motivation is to insure that the technological advances brought about by nanotechnology find an accepting, aware public, that is able to make informed decisions. The difficulties of using biotechnology, especially in food crops, have been partially attributed to a lack of engagement by the major commercial entities with an interest in the technology. Bans on genetically modified organisms are the outcome of this failure to engage. Nanotechnology faces the same challenges, even though (much like biotechnology) it has been embedded in our society for hundreds of years.
At least part of the funding to engage the general public has gone into various attempts to help the public understand nanotechnology and what it might, or might not, mean for them. The challenge of engaging the general public is not one of generating interest, but of building a sturdy foundation for debate. Science as told by most scientists is muddied by jargon, much of which is unintelligible to the non-cognoscenti. Establishing a baseline of understanding in fields such as nanotechnology is critical if we are to make the conversation and the subject approachable.
We and many others have conducted numerous surveys to ascertain what the public understands about nanotechnology. Early on we realized that the term was largely foreign and what we were assessing was an individual's willingness to admit a lack of knowledge, as compared to an attempt to avoid appearing uninformed. Even individuals who claimed to have heard of nanotechnology almost always could not provide a tangible and valid example. More often, nano was attributed to popular usage, notably the iPod nano. Rather than trying to establish factual knowledge we resorted to asking simple questions that probed what the smallest objects an individual could see and then think of were. The understanding of nanotechnology among the general public is limited, and discussions that demand an in-depth level of understanding are fruitless. Opinions within the general public and their fears about nanotechnology are largely a matter of context rather than informed judgments. We have no desire to eat nano but have no problem with getting a nano cure for cancer.
Engaging the general public in nanotechnology is complicated by the enormous differences between objects and phenomena at the macroscale and those at the nanoscale. For a start, the mere scale differences are largely beyond comprehension. Appreciating a billion of something is not impossible but appreciating one billionth of something is exceedingly hard. Scaling up is easier than scaling down, and visual perception of a nine-log difference is extremely challenging. The resolution on a high-end laptop is only about two million pixels and seeing a single pixel is hard. That difference of a million is still one-thousand fold less than the billion-fold difference that is required to understand the nanoscale. Subjects studied through a variety of mechanisms do not estimate numerical differences and tend to underestimate differences.
Our efforts over the years have focused on engaging the public and conveying four basic concepts that we believe lay the foundation for an informed public. These four concepts are:
1. All things are made of atoms.
2. Molecules have shape and size.
3. At the nanometer scale atoms are in constant motion.
4. Molecules in their nanoscale environment have unexpected properties.
The most important lesson learned is to remember that engaging the general public must be performed in an interesting, relevant, and interactive manner. The general public is faced with a never ending stream of information and competing for their attention is a vexing problem that faces every form of media. The media suite under our Nanooze banner www.nanooze.org now includes a print magazine, web-site, radio episodes (in collaboration with EarthSky), and exhibits hosted by Walt Disney World Inc. Through these various portals we reach over four million people a year and the four concepts are carried forth in a variety of stories. Stories not just about the science but about the scientists and crucially the big “so what” that is so important to the general public. Assessing effectiveness is an ongoing challenge but most of our data seems to show a positive trend.
Engaging the general public is most effectively achieved by presenting science in an approachable and exciting fashion while demonstrating relevance.
This work is supported by a Discovery Corp Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
1. M.C. Roco
J Nanopart Res, 13 (2011), p. 427
2. A.M. Waldron et al.
J Nanopart Res, 8 (2006), p. 569
3. C. Batt et al.
J Nanopart Res, 10 (2008), p. 1141
4. W. Bainbridge
J Nanopart Res, 4 (2002), p. 561
5. D.A. Scheufele et al.
Nature Nanotechnol, 4 (2008), p. 91
6. C.A. Batt
Nature Nanotechnol, 3 (2008), p. 121
7. D.J. Cohen et al.
J Exp Psych, 131 (2002), p. 424
Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
This article was originally published in Materials Today (2011) 14(6), 238. To access past issues of Materials Today, and register for your free subscription to the magazine, just click here.