Dr. Paul Scheufle is Professor of Life Sciences Communication and Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  Frequent visitors of nanolawreport have undoubtedly seen our link to his website — www.nanopublic.com.

Back in April 2006, Dr. Scheufle’ published the results of his survey of major newspapers which searched for all articles concerning nanotechnology published from January 2004 through April 2006. 

In that survey, Dr. Scheufle found just over 1200 nanotechnology articles were published in major newspapers in 2004.  About the same number were published in 2005, and results from the first half of 2006 appeared to be headed in the same direction. Interestingly, of these articles, Dr. Scheufle found only roughly 20% were devoted to possible EHS risks and or regulation of nanotechnology. He also found 81% of the general public surveyed knew nothing or "just a little" about nanotechnology, while 53% of those surveyed believed the benefits of nanotechnology would outweigh its risks. Thirty-six percent believed the opposite.

This past November, along with other colleagues from U. Wisc. Madison and Arizona State, Dr. Scheufle published the results of his most recent public opinion survey in nature nanotechnology — "Science and society: Differences of opinion."

Dr. Scheufle surveyed 1015 adults from the general public via telephone and 363 nanoscientists via regular mail between May and July 2007 regarding their perceptions of specific benefits and risks of nanotechnology.  Approximately 304 of the general public and 143 of the nanoscientists responded to Dr. Scheufle’s closed-ended questionnaire, which asked them whether they agreed nanotechnology posed the following risks and/or benefits:  Benefits: better treatment of diseases, cleaner environment, solution for energy problems, revolutionizing the computer industry, improved national security, improvement in human abilities, and an economic boom.  Risks: loss of privacy, use of the technology by terrorists, an arms race, loss of jobs, self-replicating robots, more pollution, and new health problems.

Of the seven identified risks, the greatest perceived by the general public was a "loss of privacy."  "New health problems" was fifth out of seven, while "more pollution" came in sixth. Regarding benefits, "revolutionizing the computer industry" came in first.

On the other side of the equation, the greatest risk perceived by nanoscientists was "new health problems," while "more pollution" came in fourth out of seven. Regarding benefits, "better treatment of diseases" came in first.

Among other things, Dr. Scheufle concluded the survey reveals that while nano-related EHS risks are of large concern to nanoscientists, they are not at the forefront of public perception.  However, Dr. Scheufle also makes it clear that his survey only measured perceptions, and could not be used to determine the validity of same.

One encouraging sign is that "self-replicating robots" ranked last in concern for both groups.  Less than 10% of the public respondents and less than 5% of the nanoscientists perceived them as a risk.