The overwhelming majority of people have not heard of nanotechnology, according to the results of a public opinion poll published jointly by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering today (15 March 2004) to coincide with National Science Week. However, of those who can offer a definition of nanotechnology, most believe it will make things better in the future.

The results of the opinion poll, carried out by BMRB for the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering joint working group on nanotechnology, show that just 29% of the public claim they have heard of nanotechnology, while only 19% are able to give some definition of it, whether accurate or not. Of those who are able to offer a definition of nanotechnology, 68% said it would make things better in the future.

Commenting on the results, Professor Nick Pidgeon, a member of the working group on nanotechnology, said: “Nanotechnology involves studying and working with matter at an ultra-small scale, and a nanometre is just one-millionth of a millimetre in length. It is not really a shock to discover that most people have not heard about nanotechnology, because it is still a relatively young field. But it is perhaps a little surprising that of those people who know something about nanotechnology, most think it will have a beneficial effect on the future, in view of some of the media reports about the potential dangers of nanoparticles and nanobots turning the world into grey goo.”

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering also jointly published today (15 March 2004) the results of two workshops conducted by BMRB with the public to explore their views in more depth. These found that people responded both positively and negatively when the concept of nanotechnology was explained to them.

There was a view that the smaller length scale which nanotechnology works on would lead to smaller goods, such as computers, and would mean better performance and usability. Participants were excited by the medical possibilities arising from nanotechnology and also responded favourably to potential uses in materials and cosmetics.

However, greater miniaturisation due to nanotechnology also prompted suspicions about the use of surveillance equipment and loss of privacy, whilst others expressed concerns about how much the development of nanotechnology would cost the UK.

Participants drew a parallel with GM when considering the ethical implications of nanotechnology because of the perception that both involve changes at the most fundamental level to form something that does not occur in nature. Both GM and nanotechnology could be seen as “messing with nature” in a specific way by “manipulating the building blocks of nature”. They expressed concerns about whether scientists are trying to “play God”.

Participants were very positive towards potential uses of nanotechnology in medicine, particularly in terms of earlier diagnosis and treatments. However, they also had concerns about the long-term potential side-effects of nanotechnology, and about its reliability.

Participants were strongly in favour that an attempt should be made to control and regulate nanotechnology. Although the respondents suggested various bodies as potential regulators, they were divided over the extent to which the public should be involved. It was argued that the Government and scientists did not have the right to make decisions about nanotechnology on behalf of the public without consulting them first. But they also expressed a lack of confidence that the public voice would be listened to even if it did enter the debate about nanotechnology.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering joint working group is keen to receive views, ideas, issues and questions about nanotechnology in general.

National Science Week 2004 runs from 12 until 21 March. It is co-ordinated by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Download the ETB report (419.62 KB)

Notes for editors

  1. The public opinion poll was carried out by placing questions on BMRB’s face-to-face omnibus survey from 8-14 January 2004. The questions were asked of a representative sample of 1005 adults aged 15 or over in Great Britain. All interviews were conducted in-home.
  2. Two workshops with the public were held. In London, one was held with respondents fitting an ABC1 socio-demographic profile. In Birmingham, one was held with respondents fitting a C2DE profile. Respondents were aged from 18 upwards and the genders were mixed. Those working with science or technology in a professional capacity were excluded from the sample.
  3. The Office of Science and Technology commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in July 2003 to carry out a study to:

    - define what is meant by nanoscience and nanotechnology;
    - summarise the current scientific knowledge on nanotechnology;
    - identify applications of nanotechnology, both currently and potentially, with indications of when they might be developed;
    - consider environmental, health and safety, ethical and social implications of the technology, both now and in the future; and
    - suggest areas where additional regulation should be considered.

    The report of the study will be published in summer 2004.
  4. The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. It responds to individual demand with selection by merit, not by field. The Society’s objectives are to:

    - strengthen UK science by providing support to excellent individuals
    - fund excellent research to push back the frontiers of knowledge
    - attract and retain the best scientists
    - ensure the UK engages with the best science around the world
    - support science communication and education; and communicate and encourage dialogue with the public
    - provide the best independent advice nationally and internationally
    - promote scholarship and encourage research into the history of science
  5. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Its fellowship - comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers - provides the leadership and expertise for its activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, it provides independent and impartial advice to Government; works to secure the next generation of engineers; and provides a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Claire McLoughlin at the Royal Academy of Engineering