Scientists are more worried than members of the public about the health dangers of nanotechnology, it was claimed.
Researchers in the US conducted two surveys among a random selection of adults and a group of nanotechnology experts. They discovered that, surprisingly, a greater proportion of scientists than lay-people expressed fears about the risks of the new technology to human health and the environment.
Nanotechnology involves manipulating material at the molecular level. At scales of a billionth of a metre, substances can behave in unpredictable ways and take on new properties.
The technology is expected to lead to breakthroughs in medicine and electronics, “smart” materials that respond to their environment, and miniature machines with a range of uses. But there are also risks relating to how nanoparticles might affect the human body or environment.
The surveys, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this summer, suggest that scientists are a step ahead of the public in being more aware of these dangers.
The first survey was conducted by telephone between May and July this year and involved 1,015 US adults. The second was a mail survey of 363 nanotechnology scientists and engineers chosen from the authors of more than 90,000 papers and articles.
Generally, scientists were more optimistic about the benefits of nanotechnology than the general public. Some 90% felt that nanotechnology would lead to better treatment of diseases and more than 80% thought it would produce a cleaner environment and a solution to energy problems.
Members of the public were especially worried about loss of privacy and adverse economic impacts. But it was a different story when participants were asked about health and pollution risk.
Around 30% of scientists were worried about the danger to health, compared with less than 20% of members of the public. Pollution threats concerned more than 20% of scientists, but less than 15% of the adults questioned felt concern over the issue.
Dr Dietram Scheufele and colleagues reported the findings in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.