Category Archives: public perceptions

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, issp@uottawa.ca. (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.

Graphene hype; the emerging story in an interview with Carla Alvial Palavicino (University of Twente, Netherlands)

i’m delighted to be publishing this interview with Carla Alvial Palavicino, PhD student at the University of Twente (Netherlands), as she is working on the topicof  graphene ‘hype’. Here’s a bit more about the work from her University of Twente webpage (Note: A link has been removed),

From its origins the field of nanotechnology has been populated of expectations. Pictured as “the new industrial revolution” the economic promise holds strong, but also nanotechnologies as a cure for almost all the human ills, sustainers of future growth, prosperity and happiness. In contrast to these promises, the uncertainties associated to the introduction of such a new and revolutionary technology, and mainly risks of nanomaterials, have elicited concerns among governments and the public. Nevertheless, the case of the public can be characterized as concerns about concerns, based on the experience of previous innovations (GMO, etc.).

Expectations, both as promises and concerns, have played and continue playing a central role in the “real-time social and political constitution of nanotechnology” (Kearnes and Macnaghten 2006). A circulation of visions, promises and concerns in observed in the field, from the broadly defined umbrella promises to more specific expectations, and references to grand challenges as moral imperatives. These expectations have become such an important part of the social repertoire of nano applications that we observe the proliferation of systematic and intentional modes of expectation building such as roadmaps, technology assessment, etc.; as well as a considerable group of reports on risk, concerns, and ethical and social aspects. This different modes of expectation building (Konrad 2010) co-exist and contribute to the articulation of the nano field.

This project seeks to identify, characterize and contextualize the existing modes of expectations building, being those intentional (i.e. foresight, TA, etc.) or implicit in arenas of public discourse, associated to ongoing and emerging social processes in the context of socio-technical change.

This dynamics are being explored in relation to the new material graphene.

Before getting to the interview, here’s Alvial Palavicino’s biography,

Carla Alvial Palavicino has a bachelor degree in Molecular Biology Engineering, School of Science, University of Chile, Chile and a Master’s degree on Sustainability Sciences, Graduate School of Frontier Science, University of Tokyo, Japan. She has worked in technology transfer and more recently, in Smart Grids and local scale renewable energy provision.

Finally, here’s the interview (Note: At the author’s request, there have been some grammatical changes made to conform with Canadian English.),

  • What is it that interests you about the ‘hype’ that some technologies receive and how did you come to focus on graphene in particular?

My research belongs to a field called the Sociology of Expectations, which deals with the role of promises, visions, concerns and ideas of the future in the development of technologies, and how these ideas actually affect people’s strategies in technology development. Part of the dynamic found for these expectations are hype-disappointment cycles, much like the ones the Gartner Group uses. And hype has become an expectation itself; people expect that there will be too many promises and some, maybe many of them are not going to be fulfilled, followed by disappointment.

I came to know about graphene because, initially, I was broadly interested in nanoelectronics (my research project is part of NanoNextNL a large Dutch Nano research programme), due to the strong future orientation in the electronics industry. The industry has been organizing, and continues to organize around the promise of Moore’s law for more than 50 years! So I came across graphene as thriving to some extent on the expectations around the end of Moore’s law and because simply everybody was talking about it as the next big thing! Then I thought, this is a great opportunity to investigate hype in real-time

  • Is there something different about the hype for graphene or is this the standard ‘we’ve found a new material and it will change everything’?

I guess with every new technology and new material you find a portion of genuine enthusiasm which might lead to big promises. But that doesn’t necessarily turn into big hype. One thing is that all hype is not the same and you might have technologies that disappeared after the hype such as High Temperature Semiconductors, or technologies that go through a number of hype cycles and disappointment cycles throughout their development (for example, Fuel Cells). Now with graphene what you certainly have is very ‘loud’ hype – the amount of attention it has received in so little time is extraordinary. If that is a characteristic of graphene or a consequence of the current conditions in which the hype has been developed, such as faster ways of communication (social media for example) or different incentives for science and innovation well, this is part of what I am trying to find out.

Quite clearly, the hype in graphene seems to be more ‘reflexive’ than others, that is, people seem to be more conscious about hype now. We have had the experience with carbon nanotubes only recently and scientist, companies and investors are less naïve about what can be expected of the technology, and what needs to be done to move it forward ‘in the right direction’. And they do act in ways that try to soften the slope of the hype-disappointment curve. Having said that, actors [Ed. Note: as in actor-network theory] are also aware of how they can take some advantage of the hype (for funding, investment, or another interest), how to make use of it and hopefully leave safely, before disappointment. In the end, it is rather hard to ask accountability of big promises over the long-term.

  • In the description of your work you mention intentional and implicit modes of building expectations, could explain the difference between the two?

One striking feature of technology development today is that we found more and more activities directed at learning about, assess, and shaping the future, such as forecasts, foresights, Delphi, roadmaps and so on. There are even specialized future actors such as consultancy organisations or foresight experts,  Cientifica among them. And these formalized ways of anticipating  the future are expected to be performative by those who produce them and use them, that is, influence the way the future – and the present- turns out. But this is not a linear story, it’s not like 100% of a roadmap can be turned practice (not even for the ITRS roadmap [Ed. Note: International Technology Roadmap for Semi-conductors] that sustains Moore’s law, some expectations change quite radically between editions of the roadmap). Besides that, there are other forms of building expectations which are embedded in practices around new technologies. Think of the promises made in high profile journals or grant applications; and of expectations incorporated in patents and standards. All these embody particular forms and directions for the future, and exclude others. These are implicit forms of expectation-building, even if not primarily intended as such. These forms are shaped by particular expectations which themselves shape further development. So, in order to understand how these practices, both intentional and implicit, anticipate futures you need to look at the interplay between the various types.

  • Do you see a difference internationally with regard to graphene hype? Is it more prevalent in Europe than in the North America? Is it particularly prevalent in some jurisdiction, e.g. UK?

I think the graphene ‘hype’ has been quite global, but it is moving to different communities, or actors groups, as Tim Harper from Cientifica has mentioned in his recent report about graphene

What is interesting in relation to the different ‘geographical’ responses to graphene is that they exemplify nicely how a big promise (graphene, in this case) is connected to other circulating visions, expectations or concerns. In the case of the UK, the *Nobel prize on Graphene and the following investment was connected to the idea of a perceived crisis of innovation in the country. Thus, the decision to invest in graphene was presented and discussed in reference to global competitiveness, showing a political commitment for science and innovation that was in doubt at that time.

In the European case with its *Graphene flagship, something similar happened. While there is no doubt of the scientific excellence of the flagship project, the reasons why it finally became a winner in the flagship competition might have been related to the attention on graphene. The project itself started quite humbly, and it differed from the other flagship proposals that were much more oriented towards economic or societal challenges. But the attention graphene received after the Nobel Prize, plus the engagement of some large companies, helped to frame the project in terms of its economic profitability.  And. this might have helped to bring attention and make sense of the project in the terms the European Commission was interested in.

In contrast, if you think of the US, the hype has been there (the number of companies engaged in graphene research is only increasing) but it has not had a big echo in policy. One of the reasons might be because this idea of global competition and being left behind is not so present in the US. And in the case of Canada for example, graphene has been taken up by the graphite (mining) community, which is a very local feature.

So answering your questions, the hype has been quite global and fed in a global way (developments in one place resonate in the other) but different geographical areas have reacted in relation to their contingent expectations to what this hype dynamic provided.

  • What do you think of graphene?

I think it’s the new material with more YouTube videos (this one is particularly good in over promising for example)  and the coolest superhero (Mr G from the Flagship). But seriously,  I often get asked that question when I do interviews with actors in the field, since they are curious to learn about the outsider perspective. But to be honest I try to remain as neutral and distant as possible regarding my research object… and not getting caught in the hype!

Thanks so much for a fascinating interview Carla and I very much appreciate the inclusion of Canada in your response to the question about the international response to graphene hype. (Here are three of my postings on graphite and mining in Canada: Canada’s contribution to graphene research: big graphite flakes [Feb. 6, 2012]; A ‘graphite today, graphene tomorrow’ philosophy from Focus Graphite [April 17, 2013[; and Lomiko’s Quatre Milles graphite flakes—pure and ultra pure [April 17, 2013] There are others you can find by searching ‘graphite’ in the blog’s search box.)

* For anyone curious about the Nobel prize and graphene, there’s this Oct.7, 2010 posting. Plus, the Graphene Flagship was one of several projects competing for one of the two 1B Euro research prizes awarded in January 2013 (the win is mentioned in my Jan. 28, 2013 posting).

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Holidays to all!