Monday, January 11, 2010

U.S. public faces widening information gap on nanotechnology

A new piece by ASU's Elizabeth Corley and myself, just published in The Scientist, uses national data sets tracking the exact same knowledge questions over time to show that there are widening gaps in nanotech knowledge among different groups of the public, based on formal education levels.  This directly contradicts what keeps being repeated as a mantra among most academic scholars, policy makers (both in the US and UK), and outreach specialists in the nano community, i.e., that the public is unaware of nanotechnology and uninformed.  Our data show that this unidimensional view is not only incorrect, but that these misperceptions will guide outreach efforts that will be ineffective, especially among already disadvantaged groups of society.

In other words, most commonly-shared beliefs about what people know about nanotechnology are simplistic at best, and largely based on the fact that so far we have not adequately explored the complex dynamics of how people learn about nanotechnology across different types of publics (or have not collected the right data over time in the first place).

As our data show, some publics are gaining nanotech knowledge while the least educated are not.  Every day that researchers spend not addressing these emerging gaps will continue to create more of a disconnect between scientifically literate audiences and the information poor.

Here's an excerpt from ASU's press release on the piece:
"As the global nanotechnology industry continues to produce-cutting edge consumer products, the scientific community is leaving a key part of the U.S. public behind when sharing knowledge of this new field of science, according to a new study by Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


As reported today in the January issue of The Scientist, researchers found widening gaps in nanotech knowledge since 2004 between the least educated and most educated citizens. Americans with at least a college degree have shown an increase in understanding of the new technology, while knowledge about nanotechnology has declined over time for those with education levels of less than a high school diploma, according to the study.

“Unfortunately, people with little or no formal education – those who need outreach the most – aren’t getting as much information about this issue, which will likely become even harder to understand over time,” says Elizabeth Corley, Lincoln Professor of Public Policy, Ethics and Emerging Technologies in Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs, and co-author of the study. 

Well-educated people who are already “information-rich” are learning about nanotechnology from traditional outreach efforts such as museums, Corley says. 

Closing these informational gaps among public audiences “is a necessity, especially in light of a projected 2009 U.S. budget that has reduced spending for ‘educational and social dimensions’ of nanotechnology to $33.5 million from $39.2 million in 2007,” the article states.

 “There is a real urgency to find ways of communicating effectively with all groups in society” says Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-author of the study. “Unless we find ways to close these learning gaps, we will create two classes of citizens – those who are able to make informed consumer and policy choices about these new technologies, and those who simply can’t.”

And there is a silver lining. The study also found that the Internet is one of the most effective methods in closing gaps and informing the less educated about nanotechnology. “Online and social media are some of the most promising tools for making sure we reach all members of the public with information about science and technology,” says Scheufele, “and tools like, Twitter, or Facebook will only become more important down the road.”"
Here is a link to The Scientist article and the UW-Madison press release.  Also, what do you know about nano?  Take the nano knowledge quiz.