Nanotechnology has become part of daily life - be it in stain-repellent fabrics, sunscreens or hundreds of other applications. But what do people actually know about nanotech? And how do they feel about it? The EU-funded project NanOpinion found people to be positive in principle and used its findings to formulate policy recommendations.
Entering a dialogue about nanotechnologies with people from all over Europe was at the heart of the NanOpinion project. The project took a varied, broad approach: one tactic saw teams travelling to city squares, shopping centres, libraries and festivals in 18 countries across Europe. There, they engaged people in experiments and discussions around nanotech and asked them to fill in an extensive questionnaire to learn more about their knowledge as well as their stance on nanotech.
At the same time, NanOpinion organised 20 workshops, debates and other live events. All in all, a total of 8 330 people filled in the questionnaire. Roughly 15 000 citizens participated in events. Over 1 500 students took part in school activities, while teachers had the chance to follow workshops. In addition, NanOpinion posts on social media reached thousands of users, while the media partners carried out a mass media campaign, broadcasting radio programmes and publishing newspaper supplements and 161 articles that reached hundreds of thousands of listeners and readers.
Insights into people’s minds
The wealth of quantitative and qualitative data from questionnaires and workshop reports was then analysed to produce a comprehensive picture of nanotechnology from the public’s point of view. This may be used to help plan future public engagement in the field and manage nanotechnology regulation.
“We found that, generally speaking, Europeans do not have an assured opinion on nanotech and do not feel competent to discuss it, as they know little about it,” explains Katharina Handler of the Austrian Centre for Social Innovation (ZSI). “They feel the need for more information from those media outlets that they use on a daily basis. However, their attitude towards nanotech is positive in principle, and they trust science.”
In its policy recommendations, the NanOpinion team comes to the conclusion that European citizens are in favour of labelling of nanotech products, along with detailed, accessible information. They would like to see certification in the hands of independent institutions and expect extensive monitoring, testing and regulation. Such regulation should also provide for an exit strategy, should unexpected risks become evident.
Honest and balanced information, including ethical, legal and social aspects of nanotech, is seen as key, and multi-channel science communication campaigns should be considered. To foster public engagement, NanOpinion recommends investing in a network of stakeholders engaging citizens in live dialogue and reflection. Debate and collaborative learning should be emphasised to help develop opinions.
Nanotech as a tool for STEM education
The team realised that “nanotechnology can be an excellent platform to promote science and technology education for young people,” says Yoel Rothschild of ORT Israel, an educational network of comprehensive schools in Israel and one of the NanOpinion partners. Calling for a real change to education systems, he suggests that nanotechnology should be taught from a very young age, exposing students to industry, researchers, and nanotechnology products.
However, this would require an investment in teacher training and support at local, national and European level, as teachers themselves are often unsure about the subject. According to the project consortium, nanotechnology as a multidisciplinary subject should be integrated into curricula in a flexible way and could ultimately give a boost to multidisciplinary science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
The project brought together a total of 18 partners and nine third-party organisations, including research institutes, but also educational institutions and various large media outlets.