Public Attitudes toward Nanotechnology

by William Sims Bainbridge

Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 2003

Division of Information and Intelligent Systems
National Science Foundation*
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230 USA
wbainbri@nsf.gov

ABSTRACT

Data from 3909 respondents to an Internet survey questionnaire provide the first insights into public perceptions of nanotechnology. Quantitative analysis of statistics about agreement and disagreement with two statements, one positive and the other negative, reveals high levels of enthusiasm for the potential benefits of nanotechnology and little concern about possible dangers. The respondents mentally connect nanotechnology with the space program, nuclear power, and cloning research, but rate it more favorably. In contrast, they do not associate nanotechnology with pseudoscience, despite its imaginative exploitation by science fiction writers. Qualitative analysis of written comments from 598 respondents indicates that many ideas about the value of nanotechnology have entered popular culture, and it provides material for an additional 108 questionnaire items that can be used in future surveys on the topic. The findings of this exploratory study can serve as benchmarks against which to compare results of future research on the evolving status of nanotechnology in society.

Key words: nanotechnology, nanoscience, sociology, public opinion, Internet, questionnaire, survey

 

Introduction

A September 2000 conference on the societal implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology, organized by the National Science Foundation, concluded that it is essential to involve the social sciences early in the development of these fields (Roco & Bainbridge, 2001; cf. Roco & Tomellini, 2002). It is important to understand the evolving socio-cultural context in which research at the nanoscale is funded, the societal needs that nanotechnology may satisfy, and the popular misconceptions that nanoscience education will have to overcome. This article is an initial exploration of public opinion about research and engineering on the nanoscale.

To initiate social-scientific exploration of this topic, I placed three nano-related items into Survey2001, a complex questionnaire study sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Two of these were so-called 'Likert'' items (Bainbridge, 1989: 93) - statements with which the respondent can express agreement or disagreement: 'Human beings will benefit greatly from nanotechnology, which works at the molecular level atom by atom to build new structures, materials, and machines.' 'Our most powerful 21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology - are threatening to make humans an endangered species.'

The first of these statements was adapted from the formal definitions of nanotechnology offered in a number of publications of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (National Science and Technology Council, 2000; Siegel et al., 1999; Roco et al., 2000). The second was quoted from Bill Joy's (2000) famous article in Wired magazine that warned against the supposed dangers of nanotechnology and related fields. For each statement, respondents were asked to choose one of five responses: strongly disagree, disagree, do not know, agree, or strongly agree. The third nano-related item presented the two statements again and offered a space where the respondent could write his or her views freely. This approach combines both quantitative and qualitative methodologies in a manner that is especially effective in pilot studies designed to open up a new area of social-scientific research.

Survey2001 was administered over the World Wide Web, beginning in October 2001, and consisted of a number of modules that were given to different subsets of respondents in four languages (English, Spanish, German, and Italian). Here we focus on data from the English-language version. The two agree-disagree items belonged to a module of 30 science-related items, and 3,909 people responded to them all. Web administration offers many advantages to the survey researcher, and this approach is the subject of much debate and development at the present time.

The chief disadvantage of web-administration is that most Internet surveys are not able to employ random samples of respondents. Random sampling accomplishes two things. First, it makes it easy to extrapolate results to the general population, for example predicting the outcome of an election on the basis of a pre-election poll. Second, some of the methods of statistical analysis commonly applied to surveys assume the data came from a random sample, notably tests of statistical significance. However, random samples have become prohibitively expensive in recent years, for many research topics, because public willingness to answer telephone surveys has collapsed in response to the explosion of aggressive telemarketing (El Boghdady, 2002).

A major drawback of random samples for research on public attitudes toward science is that only a small fraction of the population is attentive to scientific issues - that is, both interested and well informed. For example, the report of a 2001 survey of public attitudes toward science, conducted by the Science Resources Statistics (SRS) division of the National Science Foundation, says, '...for most issues covered by the NSF survey, fewer than 10% of the public could be considered attentive' (National Science Foundation, 2002: 7-9; appendix table 7-7). Since just 1574 people responded to the SRS survey, only roughly 157 (10% of 1574) of them had well-grounded opinions about science and technology. For a given cost, web-based surveys typically have larger numbers of respondents. The science module of Survey2001, with 3909 respondents or about 2.5 times as many as the SRS survey, will have a much greater number of respondents attentive to science and technology issues, because people recruited to web-based surveys through universities or National Geographic are more educated and more science-savvy than the average.

Modern science policy is not determined by voters in elections or referendums, nor by random samples of the population, but through informal processes in which knowledgeable opinion leaders influence decision makers in government and industry. Thus, it may be more important to study the views of knowledgeable people who want to express their considered opinions, than the views of the inarticulate and inert general public. This would be especially true for exploratory studies that seek to develop hypotheses and appropriate measures in new areas, because it is always possible to carry out an expensive survey of a random sample of the population to verify results, once research in a new area has been established on a firm footing.

Much effort is currently being invested in developing appropriate analysis techniques for web surveys (Witte et al., 2000; Best et al., 2001). Research has shown that web-based surveys can do a good job of measuring relationships between variables, even when their respondent samples imperfectly reflect the precise level of each variable in the general population (Bainbridge, 2002). Web surveys also have a tremendous potential to launch new fields of study, by developing the tools for future research.

Correlates of nanotechnology attitudes

We will begin the first quantitative analysis of data about public attitudes toward nanotechnology, by examining how the two agree-disagree items relate to each other and to eight other items in the same module, six of them concerning conventional science and technology, and two concerning pseudoscience. As Table 1 shows, in response to the first statement asserting that 'human beings will benefit greatly from nanotechnology,' fully 57.5% of the 3909 respondents agreed. In contrast, only 9.0% agreed with Bill Joy's assertion that nanotechnology is 'threatening to make humans an endangered species.' This is a vast difference in the levels of agreement, and thus we would expect to see much more support for nanotechnology than opposition even in a random sample of the general public.

Table 1: Attitudes toward nanotechnology (N = 3909 Respondents)
StatementPercent who AGREECorrelation (r) with item about:
NanotechnologyAnti-technology
Human beings will benefit greatly from nanotechnology, which works at the molecular level atom by atom to build new structures, materials, and machines57.51.00**-0.68*
Our most powerful 21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology - are threatening to make humans an endangered species9.0-0.68*1.00**
Funding for the space program should be increased47.50.38* -0.22* 
Space exploration should be delayed until we have solved more of our problems on Earth34.8-0.35* 0.30* 
Development of nuclear power should continue, because the benefits strongly outweigh the harmful results34.20.31* -0.31* 
All nuclear power plants should be shut down or converted to safer fuels32.1-0.28* 0.33* 
Research on human cloning should be encouraged, because it will greatly benefit science and medicine31.70.37* -0.29* 
There should be a law against cloning human beings52.3-0.26* 0.22* 
Some scientific instruments (e.g., e-meters, psionic machines, and aura cameras) can measure the human spirit9.1-0.02  0.05  
Perpetual motion machines, anti-gravity devices, and time travel machines are physically impossible29.3-0.02  -0.03  
*Statistically significant beyond the 0.001 level; significance can be conceptualized in terms of the likelihood that the coefficients could be reproduced by randomly reassigning responses across respondents, if the conventional interpretation in terms of a random sample of the population is considered inapplicable rather than merely approximate. **Autocorrelation of one item with itself.

In addition to the percentages agreeing, Table 1 also reports the correlations between items. These are Pearson's r product-moment correlation coefficients, that are limited mathematically to the range from -1.00 through 0.00 to +1.00. The -0.68 negative correlation between the two items shows that there is a very powerful tendency for people who agree with one of these items to disagree with the other. In attitudinal survey research one seldom sees a correlation with an absolute value this large, except of course in the substantively uninteresting case of correlating an item with itself, which gives 1.00.

The next six items are similar pairs - about the space program, nuclear power, and cloning - in which one item represents support for the technology, and the other measures opposition. The correlations between these six items and the two nanotechnology items are all rather substantial by the standards of survey research, with absolute values in the range 0.22 - 0.38. Clearly, people who are in favor of nanotechnology also tend to support the space program, nuclear power, and research on cloning. Although opposition to nanotechnology is rare, it correlates with opposition to the three other technologies. Interestingly, more people agree with the pro-nanotechnology statement, and fewer agree with the anti-nanotechnology statement, than with the corresponding statements for the other technologies.

The bottom of Table 1 reports results for two statements about pseudoscience, to explore the possibility that people may mentally assign nanotechnology to this disreputable category, perhaps on the basis of wild ideas popularized in science fiction stories. However, the correlations between the two nanotechnology items and the two pseudoscience items are as close to zero as one would expect to get in survey research, with absolute values ranging from 0.02 to 0.05. In comparing correlation coefficients, statisticians square the numbers first, to get the fraction of the variance in one variable explained by the other. Thus, we would not compare 0.05 directly with 0.38, which is a ratio of 0.05/0.38 = 0.13, but first square them to get 0.0025/0.1444 = 0.02. A correlation of 0.05 is statistically indistinguishable from zero, even with as many as 3909 respondents, so we have to conclude that nanotechnology has no measurable connection with pseudoscience in people's minds, even as they connect it strongly with other kinds of genuine technology.

As other researchers make progress analyzing their own portions of Survey2001, it will be possible to examine relationships between the nanotechnology items and questions in other modules of the questionnaire, such as a number concerning attitudes toward environmentalism. For now, we must be content with the science items and some of the demographic variables that might explain variations in attitudes. Table 2 looks at four categorical variables: gender, education, political orientation, and age.

Table 2: Factors shaping nanotechnology attitudes
Demographic or
attitudinal variable
Number of
respondents
Percent who agree with item about:
NanotechnologyAnti-technology
Male178769.27.7
Female211147.610.0
 
College graduate177562.25.6
Less than 4 years of college118652.210.6
 
Political right56663.67.2
Middle of the road103759.78.0
Political left118456.09.7
 
Age (years) >45115563.18.2
Age (years) 31-45127156.67.6
Age (years) 21-30112653.511.0
Age (years) <2134954.710.0

The table reveals that fully 69.2% of the 1787 men agree with the pro-nanotechnology statement, compared with just 47.6% of the 2111 women. We see smaller differences for the other variables. Putting them together, we would expect to find the greatest support among older, college-educated men who have relatively right-wing political views. However, except for gender, the differences are not great. Thus, the majorities agree that 'human beings will benefit greatly from nanotechnology' even among those who did not complete college, those who stand on the political left, and among those aged 30 or younger.

Future research, including with the present dataset, will seek to understand the reasons for these differences and to discover other associations. Perhaps the best way to progress quickly now, is to examine the written responses to the open-ended item asking respondents to comment on the two agree-disagree statements.

Nanotechnology values and concepts

Open-ended questionnaire items, where respondents freely write their opinions about a topic, are a good way to learn what ideas and issues are common in the culture to which they belong. But such items can also be an excellent step toward development of rigorous fixed-choice items for future surveys. For example, one study of popular beliefs about the space program began with a series of open-ended questions about the possible goals of space exploration (Bainbridge, 1991), and distilled from the mass of verbiage contributed by respondents fully 125 statements that became fixed-choice items in a later survey. Similarly, an open-ended item about the future incorporated in Survey2000, the predecessor of the current questionnaire, generated 2000 predictions about the year 2100 that became questionnaire items (Bainbridge, 2000; in press). Here, I will explain how the same method was applied to nanotechnology.

The open-ended nanotechnology item in Survey2001 was administered at random to 1/4 of the people who responded to the agree-disagree items, and 598 of them wrote comments in English. Not all respondents were prepared to provide thoughtful responses, of course. For example, a 39-year old woman from Ohio wrote: 'In all honesty, this is the first time I have ever heard of nanotechnology, so I simply cannot comment on it.' However, hundreds of others were knowledgeable in varying degrees and expressed a rich variety of views. A student wrote, 'Upon reading about nanotechnology for research projects for my university course I can see the potential this could have for medicine and for smaller technology such as computers based upon quantum mechanics.'

Other respondents explained that something about their personal situation shaped their views. A 56-year old woman from Texas explained, 'I am disabled, so I look forward to advances in science to help repair my body's cells.' A 58-year old male college graduate from Illinois commented, 'My cancer treatment has benefited from research, and will likely continue to do so.'

Some had a clear perspective on nanotechnology because of their educations or occupations. A 28-year-old man wrote, 'I have a PhD in physics and am a working engineer, and I strongly believe that scientific and technical research is important and beneficial to our society. Our society is very near-sighted in that it does not see any immediate benefit to many research endeavors, though in truth they may very well have far-reaching impact in the future. Take for instance the discovery of electricity; or thermodynamics, which led to the creation of combustion engines; or various physical properties of light and particles which can be utilized for the purpose of medical imaging, or even the radio or TV in your living room.'

Similarly, a 21-year-old woman wrote, 'I am currently working on a PhD in Materials Science & Engineering and my research strongly involves nanotechnology, so I of course think that this is an important direction to continue to explore and develop our understanding of. MEMS devices and other nanotechnology will help us develop smaller machines and the nano- research on materials will help us understand how to build stronger materials, making for stronger cars and buildings and many other applications. As for robotics etc threatening humanity, that possibility is only far off in the future. Our current abilities to build robotics and manipulate genes and do anything nano is so poor and limited that there is no danger from this area to kill off humans for many many more years. We are more likely to be killed off first from another world war involving atomic bombs or chemical warfare.'

To see how material like this can be used to create new, fixed-choice questionnaire items, consider this complex set of ideas contributed by a 33-year-old man from New Jersey: 'Nanotechnology, even though it is relatively new and its implications are not fully understood, should be a benefit. Nanotechnology may be able to build new medical devices for diagnosis and treatment of pathological states. It will lead to miniaturization of electronics and development of new materials. The only caution should be its military application and its threat for use in information gathering on people's civil liberties.' Each of the specific thoughts about the consequences of nanotechnology can be edited as a separate statement:

However, it is rare that one individual contributes so many different ideas. Often, several people express roughly the same idea, and I either select one who expressed it with superior clarity, or combine the words of several respondents. For example, here are comments from three different people who mentioned medicine: 'Nanotechnology most likely holds many benefits for the field of medicine as does biotechnology and GMO's.' 'I feel there is a great deal of potential in the use of nanotechnology, especially in the area of medicine.' 'I do think nanotechnology can be helpful and beneficial, in medicine as well as engineering.' I condensed these into a single sentence: 'Nanotechnology has great potential benefit for medicine.'

Each of the derived statements could then become a fixed-choice item in a questionnaire, with which respondents could agree or disagree. Then it will be possible to explore the clusters of ideas that inform public attitudes toward nanotechnology, and to analyze statistical correlations that would link them to other variables. Whatever the opportunities for future research, developing a list of potential questionnaire items in this way already outlines the public's ways of conceptualizing the topic.

Ideas about nanotechnology

Following is a collection of 108 statements derived from the verbiage contributed by Survey2001 respondents. Prior to future statistical studies, we cannot know for certain how the separate ideas are connected in the public mind. Purely for sake of scanning the ideas in a coherent manner, however, it is useful to assign them to rough, provisional categories. Many respondents expressed unconditional confidence that nanoscience and nanotechnology will benefit mankind, without necessarily saying exactly how:
1. Humans will benefit from nanotechnology in many ways.
2. Nanotechnology can improve the quality of life of human beings.
3. Nanotechnology has the ability to make our everyday lives more convenient.
4. Nanotechnology is a great human advancement that can revolutionize our way of life.
5. Without nanotechnology, we would be unable to mitigate some of the problems that industrial society has wrought on the environment.
6. As we approach the physical limits of our current technologies, nanotechnology will be important for the continued advancement of our civilization.
7. Nanotechnology can help the human race achieve purposes that could not be done without it.
8. Nanotechnology is no threat to our existence.
9. The power that nanotechnology creates will be used in humanity's interest.
10. Nanotechnology is a natural development of human evolution, so it will enhance our survival.
11. Nanotechnology will enable human beings to transcend the world's current problems.
12. Nanotechnology will enhance the abilities of human beings, so therefore it can not make humans an endangered species.
13. Nanotechnology will actually aid in preventing human beings from becoming an endangered species.
14. The more research we do in nanotechnology, the better mankind will be.

Other respondents hoped nanotechnology will benefit rather than harm humanity, but acknowledged a degree of uncertainty, expressed caveats, or otherwise hinted that their confidence was only conditional:
15. Humans will benefit greatly from nanotechnology, if and when we learn to create useful items atom by atom.
16. If nanotechnology is economical, it could be of great value.
17. Nanotechnology, once perfected, could be a boon to human kind.
18. Nanotechnology is an exciting development with a lot of potential, as yet essentially unrealized.
19. Nanotechnology could be really helpful in the future.
20. Nanotechnology can greatly benefit mankind, but some other technologies could get out of control.
21. Humans probably would benefit from nanotechnology.
22. It is hard to believe that any form of nanotechnology will cause a great threat to the human race.
23. Humans have the common sense to avoid going too far with nanotechnology.
24. Nanotechnology will not make humans an endangered species, because we have control over this technology.
25. The benefit of developing nanotechnology far outweighs the potential for abuse.
26. The possibility that nanotechnology might threaten humanity is only in the far future.
27. Nanotechnology, a revolutionary concept, may bring us a spectacular future.
28. Nanotechnology is poised to change the world more than anything else ever has.
29. The exploitation of nanotechnology is inevitable.

Among the most frequently mentioned specific areas where respondents believe nanotechnology will contribute to progress is science itself:
30. Nanotechnology is interesting from a scientific perspective.
31. Innovations such as nanotechnology promote the intellectual processes associated with asking questions and finding answers.
32. Nanotechnology illustrates the fact that we have much farther to go in science.
33. Nanotechnology is the next great frontier of science.
34. It is important for mankind to understand the building blocks of nature.
35. We should explore our world, even at the molecular level where nanotechnology operates.
36. By working on a molecular level, scientists are able to discover new things.
37. Nanotechnology gives us understanding at the microscopic view, which then can be applied to other technologies and discoveries.
38. Nanotechnology is a benefit to our science programs worldwide.
39. Nanotechnology will lead to a better understanding of the natural laws that govern physics and chemistry.
40. There is much to be learned from the combination of nanotechnology and astronomy, which discover similarities in the micro and macro of physical existence.
41. The scientific studies done to advance nanotechnology can have unforeseen benefits.

It was clear to many that nanoscience can lead to engineering breakthroughs that benefit industry, thereby strengthening the economy:
42. Nanotechnology will positively affect industry.
43. Nanotechnology will be a huge and important industry in the future.
44. Practical applications of nanotechnology will enable economic growth with much less of an impact on the environment than today's technology.
45. Progress in nanotechnology will improve standards of living around the world.
46. Nanotechnology will bring new developments in engineering.
47. Nanotechnology will allow humans to manipulate resources in new ways that were impossible before.
48. Nanotechnology will certainly create a wave of new devices.
49. Nanotechnology will greatly help develop smaller and more precise machines.
50. We can use nanotechnology to create more efficient things we use in our lives.
51. Nanotechnology will have military applications.

The first agree-disagree item mentioned the word 'materials,' and some respondents expanded on this potential benefit:
52. Nanotechnology will improve many of our present materials.
53. Nanotechnology will lead to development of new materials.
54. New nanotechnology materials will benefit normal everyday life as well as the industrial and military sectors.
55. Nanotechnology research will continue to find other substances that will be stronger and more efficient than what we have today.
56. Nanotechnology could create safer machines and buildings by eliminating unreliable joins in construction such as welds and rivets.
57. Nanotechnology will allow forms of production to emerge which will require less raw materials than current industrial methods.
58. Nanotechnology will be able to create wood-like substances, making it unnecessary to cut trees for lumber.
59. Nanotechnology can help reduce our dependence on consuming the world's resources.

Respondents also recognized that nanotechnology can be applied in computers, electronics, and communications systems:
60. Nanotechnology will be very beneficial in communications.
61. Nanotechnology will lead to miniaturization of electronics.
62. Nanotechnology is a natural advancement of the ever increasing efficiency in computer technology.
63. Building circuits at the atomic level will vastly improve the speed and efficiency of microchips.
64. Nanotechnology will be necessary to advance computer memory storage.
65. Nanotechnology related applications such as the quantum computer will revolutionize our ability to compute.

Like the disabled woman and the man battling cancer we already quoted, Survey2001 respondents were impressed by nanotechnology's promise for medicine:
66. In the future, nanotechnology will have an important role in health care.
67. Nanotechnology has great potential benefit for medicine.
68. Medical advances based on nanotechnology should be encouraged.
69. Nanotechnology is of great importance in the health fields, because so much occurs at the molecular level.
70. Nanotechnology will allow humans to develop medicines and vaccines that are presently impossible.
71. Many currently untreatable diseases and injuries now considered permanent could be cured by advances in nanotechnology.
72. Nanotechnology could be programmed to kill cancers without intrusive surgery.
73. Nanotechnology could be used in revolutionary ways to clear plugged veins and arteries.
74. Nanotechnology could create miniature heart pacemakers.
75. Humans can benefit from having tiny machines installed into their bodies to repair or replace a damaged organ.
76. Nanotechnology robots in our blood streams could help find trouble before symptoms arise.
77. Nanotechnology might help the blind to see and the deaf to hear.
78. Nanotechnology has the potential to develop the medical devices of the future.
79. Nanotechnology will develop tools for surgery.
80. Nanotechnology could result in revolutionary medical procedures on a level thought previously to be impossible.
81. Nanotechnology is probably the medicine of the future.
82. Nanotechnology would benefit fundamental medical research.

Of course, we are at the very beginning of the potential revolution unleashed by discoveries in nanoscience, and some respondents felt doubt, uncertainty, or ambivalence:
83. The verdict is still out on the value of nanotechnology.
84. The implications of nanotechnology are not fully understood, because it is relatively new.
85. It is hard to be sure whether human beings will or will not benefit greatly from the use of nanotechnology.
86. It is hard to evaluate nanotechnology until scientific advance actually produces some applications.
87. Nanotechnology faces some almost insurmountable theoretical problems.
88. Proponents of nanotechnology have greatly underestimated the difficulties that must be faced before achieving their most ambitious goals.
89. Nanotechnology may not prove practical outside the laboratory.
90. It is hard to see how we could benefit from nanotechnology.
91. Nanotechnology will be applied to some special problems, but it will not greatly benefit mankind.
92. The impact of nanotechnology is a very complicated issue, since a benefit for one person might harm another.
93. Old jobs replaced by nanotechnology will be substituted by new jobs related to nanotechnology.
94. Nanotechnology can be both beneficial and deadly.
95. We must be cautious in the application of nanotechnology, lest we create unforeseeable conditions that might harm our civilization.
96. It is still too early to tell how best to use nanotechnology.
97. The potential benefits of nanotechnology pale in comparison to the bounty that nature has already provided us.

Finally, a few Survey2001 respondents raised social concerns about the way the potential of nanotechnology will be exploited, or expressed direct opposition to nanoscience research:
98. Nanotechnology has the potential to unleash unknown dangers.
99. Nanotechnology goes against Nature, so it is best left unexplored.
100. Research in areas like nanotechnology is making us less human.
101. If we begin to build based on nanotechnology, not only will we be overpopulating with people, but also with structures, materials, and machines.
102. People's civil liberties will be threatened by the use of nanotechnology in information gathering.
103. Nanotechnology will make it difficult for an individual to assess whether privacy of body, home or personal life in general is being invaded and manipulated.
104. The products resulting from nanotechnology will be too expensive for the majority of people.D
105. Corporations will benefit from things like nanotechnology, but individual human beings will find their lot worsened.
106. The problem with nanotechnology is that it is driven by the profit motive and not by the benefit which can be derived through the breakthroughs.
107. The biggest risk of nanotechnology is a widening gap between wealthy nations with access to the new technology and nations that do not have access.
108. We do not have the social maturity to deal with the possible conflicts that may arise from nanotechnology.

It is interesting to note than none of the respondents warned about the science-fiction notion of self-reproducing nano-robots or otherwise identified a way that nanotechnology could harm humans directly. Rather, the few critics worried that it would be misused by some people to harm other people, exacerbating existing social inequalities and conflicts. In contrast, respondents collectively were aware of quite a number of direct benefits and found a number of ways to express confidence that nanotechnology would help human beings achieve legitimate goals.

Conclusion

The findings of this initial, exploratory study can serve as benchmarks against which to compare results of future research. Many of the Survey2001 respondents had clearly heard something about nanotechnology, and others were able to react intelligibly to the brief description of the field conveyed by the two agree-disagree items. This work offers 110 questionnaire items that could be used in future social-scientific research, the original pair of statements and the 108 that were derived from respondents' reactions to them. Naturally, it would seldom be desirable to use all of these agree-disagree items, and some have rather similar meanings to each other. A selection can be made that is appropriate for the scientific goals of the particular project.

The last set of critical statements, especially numbers 102-108, suggest a reason why enthusiasm for nanotechnology appears to be slightly weaker at the left wing of the political spectrum. Apparently, some respondents see it first and foremost as a benefit for industry, that will take investment to realize, thus favoring the rich and powerful in society over the poor and powerless. In the comparable field of information technology, this concern has been expressed in the concept of the digital divide (Department of Commerce, 1999), the worry that disadvantaged groups will fail to benefit from computers and advanced communication networks. Perhaps concerns that nanotechnology will exacerbate inequality will evaporate as the benefits actually arrive, or there may be a role for government to ensure that these benefits are widely shared.

The statements do not clarify why women are so much less enthusiastic than men. Had we seen a number of military-related statements (rather than the one rather bland item 51 we did find), suggesting how nanotechnology might be used for attack or defense, we might have inferred that the gender difference on nanotechnology reflects an underlying difference in attitudes toward the military. But apparently the public has not yet become alert to the range of potential defense applications. Future research can explore the extent to which the gender difference merely reflects the far lower interest in engineering and the non-biological physical sciences among women (National Science Foundation, 2000).

The chief finding of this initial, exploratory study is that science-attentive members of the general public are very enthusiastic about nanotechnology, and a rather large number of ideas about its benefits have already entered popular culture. Over the coming years, social scientists in a variety of fields should employ a diversity of research methods and analytical theories to chart and understand the growing significance of nanotechnology for modern civilization.

 

*The views in this essay do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation. Survey2001 was partly supported by NSF grant 0082750 to James C. Witte at Clemson University. The author of this paper is an employee of NSF, so care was taken to make sure this work was done in an ethically proper manner, guided by the NSF Office of the General Counsel and with the permission of the author's supervisor. The author did not participate in the preparation or review of the grant proposal, received no support from this grant, and is not involved in management of the grant. The author was asked to join the Survey2001 team on the basis of his prior experience with web-based surveys, including Survey2000. His involvement is limited to designing questionnaire items, analyzing data, and writing reports like this one.

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