Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions

What do members of the public think about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology? How will their views evolve as they learn more? How can goverment promote informed public deliberations about this novel science? Project members are conducting experimental studies to answer these questions.

Its immense range of potential applications — scientific, commercial, and medical — marks nanotechnology as one of the most promising new forms of applied science. The future of nanotechnology, however, will depend not just on anticipation of its likely benefits but also on fear of its possible risks. Many members of the public, often upon hearing of nanotechnology for the first time, react with near-instantaneous concern about the hazards it may pose to the environment and to human health. Despite the nascent state of the nanotechnology industry, moreover, efforts to subject it to comprehensive regulation are already under way.

As a component of its NSF-funded project on the mechanisms of cultural cognition, the Cultural Cogntion Project, in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, is conducting research to determine what people think about nanotechnology and how they respond to information about it. Three major experimental studies have already been completed, and others are underway.


Although Engineered Nanomaterials (ENMs) offer many benefits to society, our understanding of their potential risks and best regulatory practices is still in its early stages. The management of risk is complicated by the high degree of uncertainty and unique properties of ENMs, which render current regulatory frameworks inadequate. This thesis aims to investigate the challenges that nanotechnologies pose for risk regulation, and inform the development of policies and practices to address these challenges. In chapter 2, federal environmental, health, and safety regulations in the US are analyzed using a life cycle framework to evaluate their adequacy in managing the risks associated with ENMs. The analysis highlights the difficulty of managing risks associated with ENMs under existing regulations, which contain numerous gaps that may allow ENMs to escape federal oversight. Chapters 3 and 4 use a web-based survey (N=404) of US and Canadian nanotechnology experts to examine expert opinions on risks and regulatory agency preparedness to manage these risks. The survey reveals significant differences in risk and preparedness perceptions across groups of experts. Nano-scientists and engineers are more optimistic about the benefits of nanotechnology outweighing the risks, while regulatory agency workers view government agencies as unprepared to manage risks. These differences are explained by various factors, including the novelty of benefits and risks, attitudes towards other classes of risk, preferred regulatory approaches, economic conservatism, and trust in regulatory agencies. Chapter 5 explores the use of decision-analytic models to cope with uncertainty, arguing that novel tools and approaches such as risk ranking, multi-criteria decision analysis, and “control banding” can be used in place of formal risk assessment to meet regulatory goals in particular decision contexts. In conclusion, this thesis suggests that regulatory reforms, expert opinion, and improved decision-analytic tools are necessary to enhance oversight and management of risks associated with ENMs.

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