Nanotech survey finds that consumers weigh risk against benefits

By Simon Pitman

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nanotechnology, Woodrow wilson, Risk

A survey conducted by UK and US universities finds that consumers
are dubious of many products that make use of nanotechnology, but
that ultimately, the greater the benefits the technology brings,
the more they are willing to turn a blind eye to any suspected
perils.

The survey, which took into account US public perception of a range of consumer goods and machinery utilising nanotechnology, was conducted by researchers at the Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology and the London Business School.

The survey took into account the opinions of 5,000 individuals and was carried out by Zogby International, with one of the surveys specifically addressing the specific question of nanotechnology relating to skin lotions.

It is claimed to be the largest investigation into public opinion on the matter and highlights the fact that consumers perceive there to be less dangers from products developed using nanotechnology than everyday products such as herbicides, chemical disinfectants, handguns and food preservatives.

Added functionality or benefits brought about by nanotechnology also mean that consumers are more willing to try nanotechnology products.

With regards the cosmetics category, this might mean that anti-ageing products providing added benefits and efficacy because of the incorporation of such technology could prove to be popular, the study findings suggest.

"By some estimates, products containing nanotechnology already account for more than $30 billion in annual global sales, but there is concern that the public's fixation with nanotechnology's risks - either real or imagined - will diminish consumers' appetite for products,"​ said lead researcher Professor Steven Currall.

"Measuring public sentiment toward nanotechnology lets us both check the pulse of the industry right now, and chart the growth or erosion of public acceptance in the future."

Professor Currall and report co-author Dr Neal Lane reported their findings at a programme and live webcast yesterday, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, based in Washington DC.

"It was clear that people were thinking about more than risk,"​ Currall said. "The average consumer is pretty shrewd when it comes to balancing risks against benefits, and we found that the greater the potential benefits, the more risks people are willing to tolerate."

Dr Lane also pointed out that as the results of further studies into nanotechnology risk are disseminating throughout the general public in the future, the public is likely to become more aware of the risks that the technology involves.

What remains to be seen is whether or not public perception of the benefits of nanotechnology would develop in tandem with risk awareness, Dr. Lane added.

"We propose that academic bodies like the UK's Royal Society and the US's National Academies set up interagency clearinghouses to coordinate public education and synthesize the latest scientific findings,"​Dr. Lane said.

"Transmitting the latest information about both risks and benefits, in a timely, thorough and transparent way, will minimise the likelihood of a polarised public debate that turns on rumour and supposition."

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