Sunday, December 23, 2007

Nanotech news agenda pushed by interest groups and think tanks in the U.S., and by scientists and scientific associations in the U.K.

Sharon Friedman at Lehigh and her colleagues just released the latest iteration of their longitudinal analysis of media coverage of nanotechnology in the U.S. and U.K. Friedman presented their findings at a meeting last week, organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

Among the key findings: Coverage of nano risks in 2006 was almost double of what we saw the year before. And almost 50% of all articles about risk regulations in the U.S. were based on calls for regulatory action by interest groups, non-profits, and think tanks. In the U.K., in contrast, a majority of the risk coverage originated from calls for action by industry, scientific associations or university scientists (see Figure 1).

Figure 1:

Friedman's findings also provide additional context for the recent piece my colleagues and I published in Nature Nanotechnology (see nanopublic post from November 25, 2007), comparing public perceptions and scientist attitudes on nano risks and benefits. While scientists were overall more optimistic about the potential benefits and less concerned about the risks that the general public, our national surveys also identified two areas where nano scientists currently see more risks than the general public: human health, and environmental pollution.

One possible correlate of the higher levels of concern among scientists about environmental and health risks, of course, is the disproportionate focus on these two areas in elite discourse. And Friedman's findings provide empirical evidence that this in in fact true. More than a third of all reasons provided in mainstream news coverage in support of increased regulatory oversight were to "protect the environment" and to "protect people's health and safety" (see Figure 2).

Figure 2:

If it is the scientific consensus that drives coverage or vice versa, of course, remains an open empirical question.