It’s election season, which means an inundation of polls.  While most address "who’s a better leader" and "who’s more trustworthy," the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has released its third (quickly becoming annual) poll on the public’s awareness and acceptance of nanotechnology.  This year’s poll also asked questions concerning "synthetic biology" in addition to nanotechnology.  In my opinion, the results of the poll are not encouraging.

While the full report goes into significant detail concerning questions and answers, some of the highlights are as follows (+/-3.1% margin of error):

  • 7% of Americans have heard "a lot" about nanotechnology
  • 17% of Americans have heard "some" about nanotechnology
  • 26% have heard "just a little" about nanotechnology
  • 49% have heard "nothing at all" about nanotechnology

That last figure is rather stunning to me.  Despite the number of products on the market and other instances of nanotechnology (even including Michael Crichton’s Prey), still almost half of the American adult population has not heard of nanotechnology.  At all.  Further, the polling data reports that those who have heard "a lot" or "some" about nanotechnology has declined over the three years of polling (to 24% in 2008 from 27% in 2007 and 30% in 2006).

Not surprisingly, there seems to be a correlation between those who have a familiarity with nanotechnology and the beliefs as to the risks and benefits associated with it.  In short, the more one knows about nanotechnology, the more likely they are to believe that the benefits will outweigh the risks.  However, the largest group remains unsure as to the risks and benefits.

My concern, though, falls with the numbers highlighted above.  Regardless of what you think about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, it is our responsibility, as those considering themselves "in the sector" to help educate the public.  A real, substantive discussion on nanotechnology cannot happen with 49% of the population ignorant of what it is.  The PEN poll is a useful tool for determining where we need to focus our efforts.  Clearly, we need to do a better job of engaging the public on these issues.