Sunday, November 25, 2007

New survey: Nanotech's health, environment impact worry scientists more than the general public (Nature Nanotechnology)

University of Wisconsin press release from today:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
11/25/07

CONTACT: Dietram A. Scheufele (608) 262-1614, scheufele@wisc.edu

MADISON -- 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 today 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 technology.

"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.

"It's 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."

(Click here for the full press release.)


Updates:

For media coverage of this story, see the Daily Telegraph and The Times (UK), Die Welt and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany), AFP (France), COSMOS magazine (Australia), SmallTimes and Nanowerk (U.S.), and other sources at Google News.

See also posts and discussions at Slashdot.com, Framing Science and other blog reactions.

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