Torsten Fleischer, Christiane Quendt
Although nanotechnology is still an emerging technology there is already some public debate about opportunities and risks of its various applications. Empirical social research into public perception of and public attitudes towards nanotechnology is still in its very early stage. Some quantitative research has been done so far to figure out what laypeople think about nanotechnology in general, but it often is rather isolated and results are hard to compare with each other. Overall, these results show that the interest of the general public in and the knowledge about nanotechnology are rather low and that there is a strong relation between the public perception of nanotechnology and other technologies. If at all known, „nanotechnology” is a fuzzy concept to laypersons and can probably best be described as „no specific attitudes” technology.
To find out more about the reasons that lay behind peoples perceptions of opportunities and risks of nanotechnology as well as about possible „hot topics”, qualitative and participatory approaches have been applied in various countries in the last few years.
Generally speaking, participatory approaches advocate actively involving „the public” in decision-making processes, whereby the relevant „public” depends on the topic being addressed. A growing number of technology assessment organisations, but also governmental and academic institutions or NGOs, are experimenting with and implementing participatory methods, enabling a better interaction between the public, stakeholders, experts and policy-makers in the process of shaping a technology and its regulatory framework. The most prominent methods for the inclusion of the general public in discussions about future developments in science and technology are focus groups, citizens juries, consensus conferences, and variations thereof.
As a form of qualitative research, focus groups are basically group interviews that collect data and insights from group interaction on a given subject. This report presents results from a recent (January 2007) focus group exercise within the German NanoCare project that concentrated on the attitudes of laypeople, experts and multipliers towards synthetic nanoparticles and nanotechnology in general and tried to investigate the information needs especially of the lay public.
Similar to other studies, the participants of the lay focus groups mostly had only little knowledge about nanotechnology, but were nevertheless interested to learn more about the technology itself and its applications. Advances in nanotechnology were considered to be very important for solutions of medical, environmental and energy-related problems as well as making everyday life easier. Though most interviewees were positive about nanotechnology they would not accept products that were not tested before introduced to the market. Many of them expressed their fear of „unreflected commercialisation” of nanotechnology. They demanded independent control of research and transparent declaration of products containing nanoparticles as fundamental prerequisites of public trust. Furthermore, the participants asked for more information and clarification especially on the topic of risk assessment of the various nanotechnology applications, and for more discussion of new scientific outcomes with the public. Only then, they argued, can nanotechnology in general be successfully introduced into a huge number of fields in our lives.
Experience shows that laypeople are interested in participating in discussions about future developments in science and technology. The participants in this focus group exercise - randomly selected from the population of Karlsruhe - almost unanimously indicated that these instruments should be used more often to gather opinions of the general public about new technological developments. Given the broad scope of values and attitudes, the early developmental stage of nanotechnology and the low level of information about this subject, open formats like focus group interviews appear to be more appropriate than formats that work towards consensus statements or votes.