Category Archives: public perceptions

Audience perceptions of emerging technologies and media stories that emphasize conflict over nuance

A few names popped into my head, as soon as I saw a news release focused on audience perceptions and emerging technologies. I was right about one of the authors (Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin-Madison [UWM] often writes on the topic) however, the lead author is Andrew Binder of North Carolina State University (NCSU). An August 31, 2015 NCSU news release describes a joint NCSU-UWM research project  (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers from NC State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found more evidence that how media report on emerging technologies – such as nanotechnology or genetically modified crops – influences public opinion on those subjects.

Specifically, when news stories highlight conflict in the scientific community on an emerging technology, people who accept the authority of scientists on scientific subjects are more likely to view the emerging technology as risky.

“Scientists – even scientists who disagree – often incorporate caveats and nuance into their comments on emerging technologies,” says Andrew R. Binder, lead author of a paper on the work and an associate professor of communication at NC State. “For example, a scientist may voice an opinion but note a lack of data on the subject. But that nuance is often lost in news stories.

“We wanted to know stories that present scientists as being in clear conflict, leaving out the nuance, affected the public’s perception of uncertainty on an issue – particularly compared to stories that incorporate the nuances of each scientist’s position,” Binder says.

For their experiment, the researchers had 250 college students answer a questionnaire on their deference to scientific authority and their perceptions of nanotechnology. Participants were split into four groups. Before asking about nanotechnology, one group was asked to read a news story about nanotech that quoted scientists and presented them as being in conflict; one group read a news story with quotes that showed disagreement between scientists but included nuance on each scientist’s position; one group read a story without quotes; and one group – the control group – was given no reading.

In most instances, the reading assignments did not have a significant impact on study participants’ perception of risks associated with nanotechnology. However, those participants who were both “highly deferent” to scientific authority and given the “conflict” news item perceived nanotechnology as being significantly more risky as compared to those highly deferent study participants who read the “nuance” article.

“One thing that’s interesting here is that participants who were highly deferential to scientific authority but were in the control group or read the news item without quotes – they landed about halfway between the ‘conflict’ group and the ‘nuance’ group,” Binder says. “So it would seem that the way reporters frame scientific opinion can sway an audience one way or the other.”

The researchers also found that, while an appearance of conflict can increase one’s perception of risk, it did not increase participants’ sense of certainty in their position.

As a practical matter, the findings raise questions for journalists – since scientists have limited control over how they’re portrayed in the news. Previous surveys have found that many people are deferent to scientific authority – they trust scientists – so a reporter’s decision to cut nuance or highlight conflict could make a very real impact on how the public perceives emerging technologies.

“Reporters can’t include every single detail, and scientists want to include everything,” Binder says. “So I don’t think there’s a definitive solution out there that will make everyone happy. But hopefully this will encourage both parties to meet in the middle.”

I have one comment, this research was conducted on college students whose age range is likely more restricted than what you’d find in the general populace. I don’t know if the research team has plans or more funding but it would seem the next step would be to tested a wider range to see if the results with the college students can be generalized.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Conflict or Caveats? Effects of Media Portrayals of Scientific Uncertainty on Audience Perceptions of New Technologies by Andrew R. Binder, Elliott D. Hillback, and Dominique Brossard. Risk Analysis DOI: 10.1111/risa.12462 Article first published online: 13 AUG 2015

© 2015 Society for Risk Analysis

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanotechnology risk perceptions in 2015 from Australia

I haven’t stumbled across a study on the perceptions of risk and nanotechnology in quite a while.  Before commenting on this latest research from the University of Sydney, here’s a link to and a citation for this new Australian study, which is an open access paper,

Perceptions of risk from nanotechnologies and trust in stakeholders: a cross sectional study of public, academic, government and business attitudes by Adam Capon, James Gillespie, Margaret Rolfe, and Wayne Smith. BMC Public Health 2015, 15:424 Published April 26, 2015  DOI: 10.1186/s12889-015-1795-1

According to the authors, this is the first study that surveyed the general public, academics, government officials, and business people with an eye to distinguishing any differences that might exist in their attitudes,

Our study proposes to extend and develop the knowledge base regarding perceptions of risk from nanotechnology and trust by stakeholders. To do this we use a standardised questionnaire across all the stakeholders surveyed. Secondly we examine stakeholder groups beyond highly published scientists and people attending nano conferences/working in nano laboratories that had previously been surveyed to include academic, government and business stakeholders. These three groups were chosen not just for their expertise, but because they represent the interplay of stakeholders most likely to shape policy in this field. Thirdly we seek and report on views of general risk perception (to health) and for specific products (food, cosmetics and sunscreens, medicines, pesticides, tennis racquets and computers) which broadly represent Australian regulatory arms [22]. Finally we explore several trust actors (health department, scientists, journalists and politicians), all of who have the ability to shape policy.

Our study aims to test six hypotheses. First, very little targeted research has been undertaken on differing stakeholder views of risks from nanotechnology. To explore this we hypothesise that public perceptions of risks from nanotechnology will be greater than those held by ‘experts’. Second, existing studies suggest that food and health applications of nanotechnology are likely to arouse more controversy [23]. We will test the hypothesis that the public, academics, government and business respondents will all perceive a higher level of risk in nanotechnologies that penetrate or have close and prolonged contact with the body. Three, there is inconsistent evidence that increased familiarity with nanotechnology is associated with differing perceptions of nanotechnologies [24]. Our third hypothesis proposes that public self-reported familiarity with nanotechnology will be associated with a reduction in risk perception. This relationship will be found with each of the nano products in the study. Four, the public holds less trust in the government agencies with responsibility for regulating nanotechnology than that expressed by people working in nanotechnology based industries/researching nanotechnology [23]. Our fourth hypothesis tests the evidence for this proposition. We hypothesise that the trust the public vests in scientists, the health department, journalists and politicians will be less than those held by business, academic, and government respondents who have an interest in nanotechnology.

The last two hypotheses expand on hypothesis four, examining the trust of the public in greater detail. Studies have shown that the Australian public are more likely to trust scientists and scientific institutions, followed by government agencies with industry and mass media holding the least amount of trust [25],[26]. In our fifth hypothesis we test the proposition that the public will have greatest trust in scientists, followed by the health department with trust in journalists and politicians below these two. Finally, public trust in business leaders [27], science and consumer protection agencies [28] and government agencies [29] have all been associated with decreased nano risk perception. Examining other stakeholders, the greater trust that people working in nanotechnology based industries or researching nanotechnology had with scientists and government agencies, the less they perceived risk from nanotechnology [23],[30]. Our sixth hypothesis is that significant negative associations exist between the trust the public vest in scientists, health department, journalists and politicians and perceived risk of nanotechnology, both when this risk is considered to health and across all risk applications. Understanding this relationship between trust and risk perception is an important avenue for risk communication and education.

As interesting as I find methodology I’m going to skip most of it and focus on the sample size and demographics,

The surveys consisted of 1355 public, 301 academic, 19 government and 21 business responses. Gender representation of the weighted public survey population was comparable to the June 2012 Australian population estimates of approximately 50% male and female. Gender representationa for academic and business responses was more likely to be male (≈70%) while the gender of government respondents was almost evenly balanced.

Three hundred and ninety eight public respondents (30%) were categorised as having no familiarity with nanotechnology, while 528 (39%) were categorised as having some familiarity and 422 (31%) as having moderate familiarity with nanotechnology.

Amongst the academic responses, the best represented area of research (38%) was in the field of nanomaterials. Nanocharacterisation, nanofabrication, nanobiotechnology/nanomedicine, nanoscale theory/computation, nanophotonics, and nanoelectronics/nanomagnetics represented between 15% to 4% per discipline in descending order. The least represented discipline was translational nanoresearch (2%), of which half were involved in nanotoxicology and the other either in ethical or social research on risk/public attitudes/public impact or did not provide a sub specialisation. Of the business responses the greatest percentage of business involvement was in nanomaterial manufacture, importation or research (33% – 23%). Importation of products containing nanomaterials, waste collection/processing and legal issues had little representation. The highest representation of government respondents was health and safety (37%) followed by communication/social impact (26%), business development (16%) and environment (11%).

The analysis of the results is well worth reading,

The Australian public perceives greater risks from manufactured nanomaterials and shows less trust in scientists and the health department to provide protection from possible health effects than academic, business and government stakeholders in the nanotechnology sector. Food applications and cosmetics/sunscreens loom high on the list of public concerns, although medicines and pesticides are also causes of public concern. Policy makers should be aware of these risk and trust disparities and address public sentiment by treating nanotechnology applications in the higher risk areas with greater caution. Risk communication is best placed in the hands of trusted scientists.

I am a little surprised that no mention was made of the nanosunscreen situation of 2012 where a research study found that 13% (originally reported as 17%) of Australians surveyed said they didn’t use any sunscreens due to fear of nanoparticles. I have the story in my Feb. 9, 2012 posting. Be sure to read through to the end as there were a couple of updates.

Singaporeans’ perceptions of nanotechnology and consumer attitudes towards nanotechnologies in food production

This is the first time I’ve seen a study about nanotechnology perception and awareness from Asia. (As I’m sure this is not the first or the only such study, I lament my language skills once more. Since my primary search is for English language materials with my second language, French, as a very distant second, I am limited to translated materials.)

This piece of research comes from Singapore. From a Dec. 11, 2014 news item on the Asian Scientist magazine website,

A survey published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research shows that while the Singaporean population is more familiar with nanotechnology than their Western counterparts in the US and Europe, they are also more wary of the risks involved.

Asia is expected to dominate the use and release of nanomaterials into the environment, largely due to the size of the population. Furthermore, the region in general—and Singapore in particular—has invested heavily in nanotechnology research, rapidly translating their findings into industrial and consumer products. However, there has been a lack of studies documenting public attitudes and acceptance of new technologies such as nanotechnology.

To address this gap of information, a team of researchers led by first author Dr. Saji George from the Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology conducted a survey of 1,080 Singaporeans above the age of 15. Their results revealed that approximately 80 percent had some understanding of nanotechnology.

A June 20, 2014 Nanyang Polytechnic media release provides additional details about the research,

In a recent public perception study conducted in Singapore with 1,000 respondents, researchers from Nanyang Polytechnic’s (NYP) Centre for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) found that 80% of respondents were aware of nanotechnology, while only 40% of them were positive about its benefits. This was shared at the official launch of the CSN today. The event was graced by Mr Derek Ho, Director-General, Environmental Public Health Division, National Environment Agency (NEA).

The Centre is the first-of-its-kind among institutes of higher learning (IHLs) in Singapore. It is dedicated to studying the potential impact of novel engineered nanomaterials, and developing ways to ensure that nanotechnology applications are adopted in a sustainable manner for individuals and the environment. This makes the $1 million facility a key training facility for NYP’s students from the Schools of Chemical & Life Sciences, Engineering, and Health Sciences.

Perceptions influenced by exposure to prior information

The perception study conducted in collaboration with the United Kingdom’s Newcastle University, is part of a worldwide study. [emphasis mine] About 1,000 respondents were surveyed in Singapore. Among them, 80% had some level of familiarity with nanotechnology,  while only 40% of them were positive about its benefits. One of the strong determinants that influenced the perception of the public was their prior exposure to news on adverse effects of nanotechnology. This could be due to negative information on nanotechnology carried in the media. Often these are over interpretations of laboratory studies that tend to dampen public confidence in nanotechnology.

“Nanotechnology may be a double-edged sword in some applications. A large proportion of the population is already aware of it, and interestingly, 60% have actually come across negative information on nanotechnology. This points to the need for the Centre for Sustainable Nanotechnology to conduct its work robustly and effectively, to sharpen the benefits, and blunt the risks associated with nanotechnology. This will enable industries to better apply the relevant solutions, and for people to use products containing nanotechnology more confidently. Another impetus for the Centre is that through such studies, companies will learn what consumers are concerned about in specific types of products and how these concerns can be addressed during product design and manufacturing stages,” said Dr Joel Lee, Director of NYP’s School of Chemical & Life Sciences where the Centre is located.

The study also found variations in perception among different socio-demographic groups, and among applications of nanotechnology across different product ranges, for example food, baby products, medicine, clothing, cosmetics, water filters and electronics.

While this is a segue, there’s a very interesting tidbit about silver nanoparticles in this media release,

Smarter Antibacterial Nanotechnology

Since the CSN started operations in 2013, senior lecturers, Dr Saji George and Dr Hannah Gardner, from NYP’s Schools of Chemical & Life Sciences and Engineering, respectively, have studied the effectiveness of nano-silver in eliminating bacteria – which accounts for 30% of commercial nanotechnology – in applications currently available in the market. Nano-silver is largely used as an alternate anti-microbial solution in a range of industries, including clothing, baby products, personal care products and medicine.

Their research findings, now filed as a patent, uncovered that some drug resistant bacterial strains could also develop resistance to silver, contrary to the general notion that all bacterial strains will succumb to it. The duo then designed and developed a cost-effective method to generate cationic polymer coated silver nanoparticles. They observed that these nanoparticles could eliminate pathogenic bacteria regardless of their ability to resist antibiotics and silver.

Dr Lee added, “Nano-silver has captured the attention of industry and researchers. What we hope to achieve with the CSN is two-fold. We aim to be a resource for industries and even government regulatory agencies to tap on to better understand nanotechnology, its effects, and improve on its applications. These would also translate into real-world industry projects for our students and equip them to better serve the industry when they embark on their careers.”

Here’s a link to and citation for the paper,

Awareness on adverse effects of nanotechnology increases negative perception among public: survey study from Singapore by Saji George, Gulbanu Kaptan, Joel Lee, Lynn Frewer. Journal of Nanoparticle Research November 2014, 16:2751 Date: 22 Nov 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

I did search for the “… worldwide study” regarding nanotechnology awareness and perceptions but found instead a recently published study on the topic of consumer attitudes towards nanotechnologies used in food production practices which features George and Frewer,

Consumer attitudes towards nanotechnologies applied to food production by L.J. Frewer, N. Gupta, S. George, A.R.H. Fischer, E.L. Giles, and D. Coles. Trends in Food Science & Technology, Volume 40, Issue 2, December 2014, Pages 211–225 (Special Issue: Nanotechnology in Foods: Science behind and future perspectives)

This article is behind a paywall.

Nanotechnology Policy and Regulation in Canada, Australia, the European Union, the UK, and the US: a timeline for us all

The Timeline: Nanotechnology Policy and Regulation in Canada, Australia, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States (PDF; h/t July 10, 2014 news item on Nanowerk) issued by the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) takes as its starting point the invention of the field emission microscope in 1936 by Erwin Wilhelm Müller.

This fascinating 40 pp document seems comprehensive to me. While the title suggests otherwise, there are a few mentions of events involving Asian countries and they also include the Berkeley bylaw governing nanotechnology manufacture in the city. From the Timeline, p. 16 (Note: The formatting has been changed significantly),

The City of Berkeley (US)
December 2006

The Berkeley Municipal Code is amended to introduce new measures regarding manufactured nanomaterial health and safety

These amendments require facilities that manufacture or use nanomaterials to disclose in writing which nanomaterials are being used as well as the current toxicology of the materials reported (to the extent known) and to further describe how the facility will safely handle, monitor, contain, dispose, track inventory, prevent releases and mitigate such materials.

Berkeley is currently the only municipal government in the United States to regulate nanotechnology

While searching a month ago (June 2014), I was having difficulty finding information online about the Berkeley bylaw, so this was a delightful surprise.

There is (arguably) an omission and that is the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project. The Yale researchers have done some influential work about emerging technologies, including a special nanotechnology project devised in the aftermath of the Berkeley bylaw. Their focus then and now has been on public perceptions and attitudes as they affect policy.

Given how many public perception projects there have been and the timeline’s specific focus on regulation and policy, it’s understandable that not many have been included in the timeline.

Still, I was curious to see if the 2012 nanosunscreen debacle in Australia would be included in the timeline. It was not and, given that this incident didn’t directly involve policy or regulation, it’s understandable. Still, I would like to suggest its inclusion in future iterations. (For the curious, my Feb. 9, 2012 posting titled: Unintended consequences: Australians not using sunscreens to avoid nanoparticles? offers a summary and links to this story about an Australian government survey and some unexpected and dismaying results.)

The timeline appears to have a publication date of April 2014 and was compiled by Alin Charrière and Beth Dunning. It is a ‘living’ document so it will be updated in the future. If you have any comments, (I will be sending mine soon.)

It is one of a series which includes two other technologies, Synthetic biology and Bioenergy, at this point (July 10, 2014). You can go here for more about the ISSP.

Finally, bravo and bravo to Charrière and Dunning for a job well done.