Sunday, December 07, 2008

It's not just science - nanotechnology and values around the globe

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of events, editorials, and grant announcements related to synthetic biology and the notion of creating artificial life forms. Nanowerk, for instance, just reported on a $3 million grant awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) for a nanoscience program entitled "Soft-Matter Nanotechnology to Create Artificial Life Forms."

Our most recent study, released today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology (abstract; press release; supplementary tables and information), suggests that these new technologies may get a very different welcome in different parts of the globe.

Here's a short excerpt from the UW-Madison press release:
... [s]urvey results from the United States and Europe reveal a sharp contrast in the perception that nanotechnology is morally acceptable. Those views, according to the report, correlate directly with aggregate levels of religious views in each country surveyed.

In the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland, nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.

"The level of ‘religiosity’ in a particular country is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not people see nanotechnology as morally acceptable," says Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of Life Sciences Communication and the lead author of the new study. "Religion was the strongest influence over everything."

Religious Climates and Attitudes Toward
Moral Acceptability of Nanotechnology

Scheufele, D. A., Corley, E. A., Shih, T.-j., Dalrymple, K. E., & Ho, S. S. (forthcoming). Religious beliefs and public attitudes to nanotechnology in Europe and the US. Nature Nanotechnology (first published online on December 7, 2008 as doi:10.1038/NNANO.2008.361).
What was particularly interesting is the fact that religious climates in different countries did not just influence views about the moral acceptability of nanotechnology, but also of how useful nanotechnology is for society.

All of this, of course, has tremendous implications for science communication and science policy. The emerging differences we found in attitudes and concerns across countries are certainly consistent with calls for an international effort to draft nano regulations or roadmaps sooner rather than later.

But our study also highlights the importance of values, beliefs, and confirms findings from a number of recent studies (Brossard, Scheufele, Kim, & Lewenstein, forthcoming; Ho, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2008; Kahan, 2008; Nisbet, 2005) that all examine how values shape the interpretation of scientific information. This research shows that the exact same information can translate into very different attitudinal conclusions for highly religious respondents than for non-religious ones. In other words, we may be wasting valuable time and resources by focusing our efforts on putting more and more information in front of an unaware public, without first developing a better understanding of how different groups will filter or reinterpret this information when it reaches them, given their personal value systems and beliefs.

So what's the moral question behind nano? One answer comes from QuinnNorton on the O'Reilly Radar:
"The question is not so much whether synthetic biology will remake society, but who will be in control when it does. "
Many scientists, meanwhile, still don't see the connection between the scientific aspects of their work and its social or moral implications. In a recent interview with a Medill graduate student, Stanford assistant professor Drew Endy described the difference to a god-like creator as mostly skill related:
Q. What do you say to the argument that only God should do the type of reconstructing that you’re researching?

A. I think it’s a different question if the concerns have to do with making something new. I don’t view making something new, whether it’s reprogramming the bouquet of a bacteria or a more serious project. I don’t view those projects as creating life, but rather construction projects. For me as an engineer, there’s a big difference between the words creation and construction. Creation implies I have unlimited power, perfect understanding of the universe, and the ability to manipulate matter at a godlike level. That’s not what I have. I have an imperfect understanding, a budget, limited resources, and I can only manipulate things quite crudely. In that context, with those constraints, I’m a more humble constructor.

(Click here for the full interview.)
For more information on the work in nanotechnology and society at UW, see Nano&Society@UW, the Department of Life Sciences Communication in the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences at UW, and an overview of other relevant publications from my research group here.

Update: Also see articles by Dan Kahan and colleagues (here) and Nick Pidgeon and colleagues (here) in the same issue of Nature Nanotechnology.