Grant to Support Study of Public Perception of Nanotechnology Health Risks

March 24, 2008
The National Science Foundation granted a North Carolina State University researcher $1.4 million to study how the public interprets information about the potential health risks of nanotechnology.

David Berube, Ph.D., a professor of communication and author of Nanohype: The Truth Beyond the Nanotechnology Buzz, intends to use the 4-year grant to develop a way for scientists to convey research findings that are more easily absorbed by the public.

“When the public tries to understand technical information on health and safety, they do not turn to scientific data,” Berube pointed out. Instead, he said people “use their own preconceived ideas and biases” to determine what is safe, and whether or not their conclusions are supported by science. This includes public perceptions of nanotechnology and its associated risks and safety issues.

The emerging science of nanotechnology, which generally is defined as technology using substances measuring 100 nanometers or less, is expected to have widespread uses in medicine, consumer products and industrial processes. The technology currently is used in a variety of products, such as cosmetics and sunscreens.

Berube acknowledged that studying how people understand and perceive risks associated with nanotechnology can be difficult considering that “a lot of this information is about life and death, and most people have trouble understanding the difference between a risk of 1 in 1 billion and a risk of 1 in 1,000.”

He stressed the importance of finding the best way to distribute accurate information regarding nanotechnology not only to the public, but also to state or federal regulators. As a result, regulators can make informed decisions about what is or is not safe.

The grant also will support a 2-day conference, “Communicating Risk in the 21st Century,” in Raleigh, N.C., this summer.

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