Ankita Rathore, a research student, is studying how people perceive the rapidly emerging field of nanotechnology. In this opinion article, she shares some aspects of her ongoing research and her views on why it is essential to factor in public opinion before implementing new technologies for their benefit.
What do the sci-fi superhero Iron Man’s invincible armour and our wrinkle-free or stain-free fabrics have in common? It’s nanotechnology!
From medicines to cosmetics, clothing to food packaging, nano-sized particles are increasingly being added to everyday consumer products to transform their properties uniquely. Nanoparticles are incredibly tiny — about one billionth of a metre or about 100 times smaller than a grain of sand. At the nanoscale range, some materials exhibit exceptional properties not present in their bulk form. For instance, bulk gold is yellow and inert; however, gold nanoparticles are ruby red and highly reactive and hence find wide use in the food industry, bioimaging and several other medical applications.
As a researcher investigating nanotechnology-based treatment methods for a type of brain cancer, I was fascinated by the marvellous potential of nanotechnology. Often, I found myself explaining to friends and family about the rapidly developing scope of nanotechnology. However, these conversations stirred several other questions in me: How well do people understand nanotechnology? How do people perceive communication about nanotechnology? Is it as well-received as, say, biotechnology or artificial intelligence? Are there variations in the understanding across demographics? Does the knowledge vary between the people in developed nations and India?
Why should we study the public perception of nanotechnology?
One may wonder if studying the public perception of nanotechnology is necessary. Governing a particular technology is not just about administration and allocation of funds; it must integrate societal needs and acceptance among people. Nanotechnology as a discipline is still in its nascency in India, and it holds potential for delivering advanced applications for the benefit of society. Hence it becomes essential to engage different stakeholders in the early stages of scientific progress to avoid public opposition later. For effective engagement, people must be well informed about the technology as their views and perceptions are based on a good understanding of it.
As an effort in this direction, I chose to focus my research on nanotechnology through a sociological lens — how people perceive various risks and benefits of nanotechnology applications in India.
Global perception of nanotechnology
During the literature survey for my study, I realised that globally, people have a positive attitude towards nanotechnology. Their opinion tilts towards the benefits rather than the risks of nanotechnology.
I found that several factors influenced this perception. Chiefly nanotechnology information in media, newspapers and social media plays an important role. Although the frequency of nanotechnology coverage in newspapers is poor, the published information is skewed, with mostly positive aspects and benefits outweighing the inherent risks of the emerging technology. Similarly, following the newspaper coverage trend, the talk about nanotechnology on social media is also positive. Moreover, demographics like age, income, education etc., as factors influencing public attitude about nanotechnology varied with the socioeconomic statuses of different people.
Also, the benefit-risk perception of people toward nanotechnology varied with its different applications. For example, people believe that the use of nanotechnology in medicine is safer than its use in the food industry.
In addition, I discovered that most nanotechnology perception surveys focused on the western countries, but none examined how Indians perceived this technology.
This knowledge gap formed the crux of my research: to understand how various factors like media (newspapers and social media), religion, trust in science, knowledge and demographics influence the risk or benefit opinions of nanotechnology in India.
Considering these aspects, I am evaluating the benefit-risk perception of Indians in seven different nanotechnology applications: cosmetics, medicine, food, sports, electrical appliances, pesticides, and detergents.
With the help of an online pan India survey, I am trying to understand if nanotechnology is accepted or rejected by Indians. The multilingual online questionnaire for people aged 18 – 80 assesses their awareness, knowledge, attitude and future outlook toward nanotechnology.
I arrived at a measure to assess the survey participants’ awareness of nanotechnology by asking them to rate their answers to a simple question: “To what extent do you feel informed about nanotechnology?”. On a scale of 1 to 4, 1 implied, ‘I don’t know anything about nanotechnology,’ to 4 ‘I am well versed in nanotechnology’.
To assess their factual knowledge, that is,their understanding of basic information and terms related to the nanotechnology discipline, I ask them seven “true or false” questions. For example, ‘are nanoparticles used in sunscreens as UV filters?’
I ask participants to describe their attitude toward nanotechnology with four possible options: good, neutral, not good or unsure.
Lastly, to assess their outlook on nanotechnology, I ask the participants about the impact of the technology in the next 20 years with four possible answers: positive, negative, no impact, or unsure.
Managing potential risks of nanotechnology
The government of India invests a fair share of public funds in nanotechnology. Being one of the fast-developing technological fields, India invested around INR 60 crores in nanotechnology R&D during the first Nano Science and Technology Initiative (NSTI) in 2002. It rose to INR 1000 crores in its second phase, Nano Mission, during the eleventh five-year plan (2007−2012).
Contrary to this, little effort is put into educating and engaging the public about the technology. However, India needs to strengthen nanotechnology development with careful governance to minimise the risks associated with this emerging technology. Opportunities in nanotechnology can only be seized with a clear regulatory roadmap which addresses the potential risks and safety issues concerning nanomaterials. Furthermore, nanotechnology research should include a socio-cultural perspective because every technological product has a human impact and costs. Currently, no regulatory body is dealing with managing future potential risks of various nanotechnology applications. Through this research, I am attempting to bring civil society as a stakeholder to the forefront of nanotechnology planning and implementation, contributing to a better risk governance framework.
Steve Jobs says it succinctly: “Technology alone is not enough. It is technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”