Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New Nature Nanotechnology Editorial: Social and natural sciences need to get their act together

In an excellent editorial, Nature Nanotechnology Chief Editor Peter Rodgers today outlined some of the communication challenges nanotechnology may face in the near future. His editorial emphasized -- once again -- the need for systematic and research-based collaborations between social and natural sciences:

"However, nanoscientists and technologists should look to social scientists for more than just data on these questions — help from 'outside' is also needed to communicate effectively with the public. [...]

These and other results emphasize the difficulty of making sure there is not a public backlash against nanotechnology — there is no guarantee that the communication approaches that work for men in the US, for instance, will work for women in the US, let alone for anyone else in the world. One size certainly does not fit all. Given the complexity of this challenge it can be helpful to think in terms of 'frames' or 'perceptual filters' when trying to communicate with the public [...]. The basic idea of this approach is that most people are overloaded with information and not that interested in the details of nanotechnology or any other technology, so they use frames or filters — such as their political or religious beliefs — to process all this information and what it means for them."

(Read the full editorial here.)

Just to illustrate this point a little bit further, data from a forthcoming study by some of my colleagues and myself shows shows that religiosity is already emerging as an important "filter" for certain publics when they make sense of nano. And this is not just about a simple correlation between religiosity and attitudes toward science, which is important in its own right. But in this case, we're talking about a link between knowledge and attitudes that varies depending on respondents' levels of religiosity. In other words, knowing more about nanotechnology is consistently linked to more positive attitudes among less religious respondents. For more religious respondents, in contrast, high levels of knowledge do little to influence their attitudes about nano funding (see Figure).


(Based on Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A., Kim, E., & Lewenstein, B. V. (forthcoming). Religiosity as a perceptual filter: Examining processes of opinion formation about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science.)

Putting information out there, of course, continues to be an important goal for all science communication. But we also need to realize that different publics have different informational deficits, react very differently to information, and -- most importantly -- are looking for answers to questions that often have very little to do with the scientific issues surrounding emerging technologies. As the data from our forthcoming article show, fitting the moral implications of nano breakthroughs into their existing belief systems is much more important for sizable groups in society at the moment than understanding the science behind it.


For more on this idea of perceptual filters, see:

Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A., Kim, E., & Lewenstein, B. V. (forthcoming). Religiosity as a perceptual filter: Examining processes of opinion formation about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science.

Scheufele, D. A. (2006). Five lessons in nano outreach. Materials Today, 9(5), 64.

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

We also enjoyed reading this editorial and support its emphasis on the need for systematic and research-based collaborations between social and natural sciences.

We would, however, like to point out some of our concerns.

The editorial places an accompanying article by Scheufele and colleagues in the context of "making sure there is not a public backlash against nanotechnology". Scheufele et al. conclude that they agree with Currall and colleagues that “now is the time to educate the public aggressively with facts about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology”. But, if the public should be educated to be more concerned about the risks of nanotechnology, what is it exactly that is undesirable about a backlash? A backlash, would after all, represent a natural demonstration of public concern.

Perhaps the concern is that ‘backlash’ has aggressive connotations? If so, are there not similar concerns with saying that the scientists’ education of the public should be ‘aggressive’? Or is the problem rather that a backlash would be uncontrollable and potentially raise concerns outside a box of permitted issues? Scheufele and colleagues suggest that the public should be educated to be more concerned about negative impacts on health and the environment – impacts with potential technical solutions.

History shows, however, that public backlash against new technologies usually involves much broader questions (questions that are perhaps uncomfortable for researchers invested in the field) such as: Do we need this innovation? Do we want it? Would we rather direct research funding elsewhere? These questions are less amenable to technical solutions and therefore represent a critique that falls outside the control of the scientific community. Does this mean that the fear of backlash is really a fear of being out of control of how the public has influence over the direction of research and innovation, and thereby, what questions are raised?

We value the fact that nanotechnology as a field has largely moved beyond claiming a simple need for education and has placed greater emphasis on engaging the public directly in shaping scientific research. However, we worry that the primary motivation of many natural and social scientists in current approaches to public engagement is to avoid backlash. This motivation creates a situation in which engagement exercises are more focused on directing public attention towards a narrow range of questions rather than encouraging broader debate about what is at stake. This attempt to ‘civilise’ public participation through formal processes, sidelines the importance and value of conflict and confrontation, not only for maintaining a healthy democracy, but also for permitting critique of imposed frames or rules, as well as broader social systems and structures.

Sincerely,
Fern Wickson & Kamilla Kjølberg