Taking The NanoPulse -- Good News! The Public Is Ready For Nanotechnology In 2007

National research finds positive consumer perception.

The time for hand-wringing is officially over. Nanotechnology is not scaring consumers out of their wits. In fact, consumers' minds are wide open to the possibilities of nanotechnology, even as they understand potential risks.

That isn't opinion or conjecture; it's fact. This finding -- and other interesting data -- comes directly from a national research study conducted by Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN), University College London (UCL) and the London Business School.

Exactly what do consumers think about nanotechnology? Consider this tidbit: consumers rate it safer than some commonplace, everyday products, including herbicides, chemical disinfectants and food preservatives. The study also shows that the public is pretty savvy in their judgment. They aren't blindly accepting of nano-products, nor are they clueless about risks. They are simply willing to consider both the risk and rewards -- just as they do with other technologies. Quite simply, they knowledgeably -- and enthusiastically -- choose the benefit of nano-enabled products.

That's the topline. Now let me give you some of the background. This research, billed as the largest research study of its kind, was just published in December's journal Nature Nanotechnology. It was a consumer study conducted with more than 5,500 respondents across the U.S. to gauge their acceptance of nanotechnology. The researchers defined nanotechnology as involving "human-designed materials or machines at extremely small sizes that have unique chemical, physical, electrical or other properties," and then asked a variety of questions to measure perceptions. The most revealing part of the study? For my money, it's when the questions got specific. Respondents were asked about their attitudes toward four nano-containing products: a drug, skin lotion, automobile tires and refrigerator gas coolant. Guess what? They were ready to buy.

Frankly, I'm not the least bit surprised by consumers' positive responses. They confirm what I've seen time and time again in the marketplace: risk isn't the whole story with consumers when potential rewards are seen.

So is it time for full speed ahead for nano-products? The American public offers a resounding, "Yes!" I concur -- with a few common sense caveats. We need to continue educating consumers and encourage an open dialogue. We never want to squander the trust we've created. I'm in agreement with lead researcher Neal Lane, co-author of the Nature Nanotechnology article. He suggests, "Transmitting the latest information about both risks and benefits in a timely, thorough and transparent way will minimize the likelihood of a polarized public debate that turns on rumor and supposition." We also seem to concur on my comments from last month's column about the need for government and industry to provide significant resources -- as much as $100 million annually -- to support the continued investigation of potential environmental, health and safety risks.

The research also concludes that we need to take nanotechnology's educational emphasis beyond the general public to the next obvious step: American students. The U.S. needs to prepare its students to be part of a competitive nanotechnology workforce. I couldn't agree more. The nano-world is here, with global revenues from existing products already estimated as high as $30 billion. The breakthroughs we're seeing every day, paired with consumer acceptance shown in this study, are proof enough for me that we're seeing just the tip of the iceberg. Nanotechnology is the future. If America is going to remain commercially strong in the global marketplace, it's crucial to prepare the next generation of leaders in research and development.

The scientific potential for enormous nanotechnology benefit has long been apparent. Now we know consumers are ready and waiting to embrace its benefits. Isn't that a great way to start 2007? Happy New Year! Now get to work.

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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