Friday, February 29, 2008

Environmental, Health and Safety Aspects of Nanotechnology: A Workshop for Reporters

UW announcement on
nano workshop for journalists:
The Big Picture on Small Things:
Exploring nanotechnology’s benefits and risks when communicating with the public

When: July 20–22, 2008

Where: University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, WI

Nanotechnology is everywhere today in consumer products, emerging medicines and scientific research. Which advances will change our lives the most? What role will regulation play as the field develops? And how can journalists best convey both the promise and potential risks of this emerging technology?

Journalists interested in exploring these and other questions about nanotechnology’s larger issues are invited to apply for a two-and-a-half day course in Madison, Wisconsin:

Environmental, Health and Safety Aspects of Nanotechnology: A Workshop for Reporters.

Sponsored by the UW–Madison Materials Research Science and Engineering Center on Nanostructured Interfaces and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the program will consist of seminars, panel presentations, laboratory tours, hands-on activities and a trip to a local nanotech startup company.

Anticipated speakers and topics include:

• Environmental impacts of nanotechnology: The EPA perspective

• Media’s role in forming public opinion on emerging technologies

• Consumer health benefits and risks

• Occupational safety and nanotechnology

• Regulating nanotechnology at the state level

Attendees will be chosen on a competitive basis. Each will receive a fellowship, covering all travel and lodging expenses, through the support of the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment.

To apply, send a cover letter, résumé or CV, and writing sample to

For more information: Visit

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Religion and nano … what the data show

Following up on some of the recent coverage of our AAAS presentation and press briefing (see, for example here, here, and here), let me provide a few pieces of background info. As part of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University we’ve been collecting survey data since 2004 now on public attitudes toward and awareness of nanotechnology. These data allow us to make comparisons over time using nationally representative samples and stable measures.

In our most recent iteration, we also designed a battery of questions to parallel the wording of questions in the 64.3 Eurobarometer surveys about public attitudes toward nanotechnology. This provides us with data from over 30 countries on attitudes toward nanotechnology and nano regulations.

First comparisons showed many similarities between the U.S. and key players in Europe (see Figure 1). There was, however, one difference between Europe and the U.S. And that was that respondents in the U.S. were significantly less likely to agree that “nanotechnology is morally acceptable.” At first glance, of course, this finding seems somewhat puzzling. Why would consumers and citizens have moral qualms about a technology they know little about?

Figure 1: Nano attitudes in the U.S. and Europe

(Scheufele, D. A. (2008, February). Engaging religious audiences on nanotechnology. Presented to the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Boston, MA.)

In order to make more sense of this finding, we also looked at the World Values Survey, an extremely rich data set with data from over 75 countries on religious views, values, media use, demographics and other variables. And the pattern was not surprising. On a ten-point scale, U.S. respondents scored between 8 and 9 on average when indicating how much guidance god provided in their daily lives. European respondents in Germany, France, and the U.K., in contrast, consistently scored below 5.

And these differences are at least consistent with the idea that religiosity may play more of a role among the U.S. public than European audiences when it comes to nanotechnology. At the same time, however, comparing aggregate level data from different data sources can suggest a potential explanation, but provides no conclusive evidence. Some of that individual-level data, however, can be found in a forthcoming study conducted by colleagues of mine at Wisconsin and myself, examining the role of religiosity in moderating the impact of risk/benefit perceptions on nano attitudes.

And the influences we found in that study of religiosity on attitudes toward nanotech in the U.S. were very interesting. First, our data showed a weak link between religiosity and attitudes toward nanotech and nano funding. And that most likely reflects a general reservation toward science among religious respondents. More importantly, however, our data showed that religiosity also serves as an important "filter" for certain publics when they make sense of nano. I have written about this idea before:

Scheufele, D. A. (2006). Messages and heuristics: How audiences form attitudes about emerging technologies. In J. Turney (Ed.), Engaging science: Thoughts, deeds, analysis and action (pp. 20-25). London: The Wellcome Trust.

And again, this is not just about a simple correlation between religiosity and attitudes toward science, which is important in its own right. But in this case, we're talking about a link between benefit perceptions and attitudes that varies depending on respondents' levels of religiosity. In other words, seeing the benefits of nanotechnology is consistently linked to more positive attitudes ... at least among less religious respondents. For more religious respondents, in contrast, that effect is significantly weaker, and seeing the benefits of nano does not necessarily translate into support for the technology or future funding (see Figure 2).

(Based on more complex multivariate models, outlined in Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A., Kim, E., & Lewenstein, B. V. (forthcoming). Religiosity as a perceptual filter: Examining processes of opinion formation about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science.)

Putting information out there, of course, continues to be an important goal for all science communication. But we also need to realize that different publics have different informational deficits, react very differently to information, and -- most importantly -- are looking for answers to questions that often have very little to do with the scientific issues surrounding emerging technologies. As the data from our forthcoming articles show, fitting the moral implications of nano breakthroughs into their existing belief or value systems is much more important for some groups in society at the moment than understanding the science behind it.

(For media coverage of this story, see BusinessWeek, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Capital Times, Wired, Science Daily, and other reactions from the blogosphere.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

New NNI strategy document on nanotech EHS research


February 14, 2008, 10 a.m.-The Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Technology today released a document describing the National Nanotechnology Initiative's (NNI) strategy for addressing priority research on the environment, health and safety (EHS) aspects of nanomaterials.

The full report, Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research is available at"

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Science reaching the public -- AAAS more relevant than ever?

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"This week newspapers in Beijing, radios in Brisbane, and television sets in Berlin will all carry stories springing from Room 112, a windowless cell buried within Boston's Hynes Convention Center. More than 600 reporters and producers from media outlets around the world will be buzzing around that news-briefing room and nearby meeting halls, lured by legions of scientists giving talks about AIDS, climate change, poverty, stem cells, and many other thorny issues that confront modern society.


In recent decades, though, the AAAS has struggled to keep its annual meeting from fading into history. As more-specialized societies have taken over the regular business of science, the AAAS meeting has had trouble attracting researchers and providing cutting-edge presentations. It actually loses money for its parent organization, and some have questioned its usefulness.

So the AAAS has tried to carve out a unique niche for its annual meeting — as a place where scientists can best reach out not just to colleagues, but also to the mass media and the world at large.


"There's been a decline in public interest, public trust, and public support for science — and scientists want it back," says Sharon Dunwoody, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the behavior of reporters at AAAS meetings.

But with increasing competition for their attention, and tighter travel budgets, many journalists have trouble justifying a trip to the meeting. National Public Radio, for example, has not routinely sent any reporters to cover the meeting for more than a decade, says Richard Harris, a science correspondent at the network.

Still, Ms. Dunwoody expects the press room in a popular destination like Boston to be overflowing, a prediction that matches the high number of media-registration requests received by the AAAS."

(click here for the full article)

The 2008 AAAS annual meeting will take place later this week in Boston, MA:

"Science and Technology from a Global Perspective emphasizes the power of science and technology as well as education to assist less-developed segments of the world society, to improve partnerships among already-developed countries, and to spur knowledge-driven transformations across a host of fields. With more than 150 symposia as well as plenary and topical lectures and a variety of special events to choose from, Boston is the place to be from 14-18 February for anyone with a passion for science or a desire to meet the world's leading experts.

Click here to view the full program."