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Rice UniversityCBEN
Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology
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Assessing Public Trust and Perceptions of Risk

Public perceptions of nanotechnology will inform the study and utilization of nanotechnology by individuals in the for-profit sector and by academic scientists. Furthermore, the level of the public’s trust will determine whether commercial products containing nanotechnology will be embraced because of their perceived benefits or avoided due to fears. The importance of public trust and acceptance is a lesson already learned by corporations and governments who have found that both real and imagined hazards of nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, biotechnology, and semiconductor manufacturing have played a key role in their development. Public trust in any new technology determines the willingness by individuals to purchase products based on these technologies and their willingness to work in companies where these technologies are developed or manufactured. Through our research, we will develop an understanding of how the public currently perceives nanotechnology, and this information will in turn provide guidance to corporations and governments who wish to avoid public backlash as has been seen in previous technologies (e.g., genetically modified organisms).

Our research program will contribute to a deeper understanding of the public’s perceptions of nanotechnology by:

  1. Determining the level of the public’s trust in nanotechnology.
  2. Exploring potential risks and benefits that foster or detract from trust in nanotechnology.
  3. Comparing trust in nanotechnology with trust in other technologies.
  4. Comparing trust in particular commercial applications of nanotechnology with other applications.
  5. Examining how a corporation’s association with nanotechnology impacts public perceptions of the corporation.

As a foundation for our work on nanotechnology, we have developed a theoretical model of trust in new technologies.  Based on our studies of trust in a variety or organizational contexts, we define trust as the decision to rely on a target under a condition of risk. Our focus on nanotechnology applications as targets of trust allows us to investigate public perceptions of nanotechnology as well as test a general model of trust and risk perception. This theoretical model proposes that attitudes toward new technologies, societal influences, and individual differences in affect and cognition predict intentions to engage in trusting behaviors. These intentions, in turn, lead to trusting behavior (i.e., using a product developed through nanotechnology).

We are applying our model of trust in new technology in two complementary studies of public trust in nanotechnology. First, we will assess the public’s trust based on data from a representative sample of survey respondents across the United States. This sample also will be used to investigate the psychological factors (i.e., risks and benefits) that contribute to trust or lack of trust in nanotechnology. Respondents will be presented with information about hypothetical commercial products that are described as containing nanotechnology.  We will experimentally vary risks and benefits associated with these products to examine how people choose whether or not they would use (i.e., trust) these products. This study will allow us to test the relative importance of the target of risk as well as the risk/benefit ratio in predicting trusting behaviors toward nanotechnology.

Second, our model of trust and risk perception will be tested through an extensive laboratory study that requires participants to evaluate hypothetical nanotechnology products in comparison to each other and to other technologies. We also are studying whether corporations that are seen as associated with nanotechnology will benefit from or be negatively affected by this association. Finally, we will investigate the extent to which organizations associated with nanotechnology can maintain or improve public perceptions.

Across both studies, we will include a baseline measure of the general public’s knowledge of nanotechnology. Initial studies suggest that many people know very little about nanotechnology, but few studies have taken an in-depth look at the characteristics of individuals with varying levels of knowledge about nanotechnology. We will contribute to this literature by asking participants to describe what they know about nanotechnology as well as the overall positivity or negativity of their feelings toward nanotechnology.