There has been a huge upsurge in anticipating how the public will react to nanotechnology, particularly a widespread negativity about its use and the possible health risks associated with nanomaterials. This has an important impact on those who regulate risks, as they need to understand emerging trends in public perceptions of this topic.

A team of researchers from the universities of British Columbia and California analyzed a number of surveys undertaken to explore public perceptions of the risks and benefits inherent in the use of nanomaterials. Published online in Nature Nanotechnology (doi: 10.1038/NNANO.2009.265), they found that many in the nanoscience and policy communities are anxious to know whether or not this new class of technologies will be controversial.

However, their study concluded that nearly half of those surveyed have no familiarity with nanotechnologies, despite their ever-increasing presence in our lives. The results stressed that risk perceptions, which have an important consequence for policy making and public response and participation generally, have a very different character when studied outside the context of risk controversies, and also that it is a major challenge to those who study risk to find new methodological approaches to analyzing technology that is new to the public.

As team member Terre Satterfield points out, “historically, technologies that are invisible, unknown, difficult to control, and undetectable to the human senses have all been judged by the public as highly risky. Nanotechnologies are all of these things and thus it should follow that they are seen by the public as risky.” Yet they found that those who currently perceive greater bene?ts outnumber those who perceive greater risks by 3 to 1.

However, judgments about nanotechnologies are still highly malleable, as nearly 44% refuse to offer any judgment, even if offered information on the subject. Satterfield reckons this is a good sign, as it suggests judgment conservatism or just good old waiting and seeing, a healthy outlook in times of high uncertainty.

This is the first time researchers have tried to anticipate public response in advance, and it is reasonable to assume that prior theories of why people are averse to some technologies will be useful in anticipating responses to nanotechnologies. Especially since, when a product, or technology becomes stigmatized in the mind of the public, the economic consequences can be enormous, which happened in the UK with the sale and exportation of beef in the aftermath of the BSE crisis. From a health and safety policy point of view, sometimes people are very wise in their resistance to some new technologies. With nanotechnology, the case is still open.