As an emerging scientist, I often can’t help but conclude that the public must think science is a bad thing. After all, that’s the view I get every time I do my weekly groceries. Take a stroll through your grocery store and you will find products that have labels such as “chemical-free,” “non-GMO,” “all-natural,” “rBST-free,” and of course, the infamous “organic.” But as any scientist would do, I did some research and found out that what I thought of the public’s perception of science was almost completely wrong! Allow me to explain.
When I spoke to a friend of mine, she said that she would only buy foods with “organic” and “all-natural” labels because otherwise, they were made in laboratory where all sorts of “crazy things happen…kind of like a witch’s brew.” In a previous blog post by Rebecca Klaper, she mentions how “all-natural” products may contain chemicals found in nature but that were instead made in a lab….so it’s not exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of “all-natural.” And of course, there is no such thing as a “chemical-free” product on a store shelf because all physical objects are made of chemicals. It always is a pet peeve of mine to see these “chemical-free” products and how strongly they are endorsed. Since I am a chemist, of course I would take these labels to mean that people dislike my chosen field of scientific study, chemistry.
The real question here is “what does the public actually think about science?” Recent studies, such as one appropriately titled “PUBLIC PRAISES SCIENCE; SCIENTISTS FAULT PUBLIC, MEDIA”, have looked at many aspects of public opinions about science. The most interesting piece of information was that 84% of people said science has made mostly positive impacts on society. Across all demographics, this still held quite true with relatively small deviations. When questions specifically came down to the effect of science on the quality of health care, environment, and food, the majority still said that the effects were mostly positive (85, 66, 66%, respectively). Clearly, I’m only citing just a little bit of the huge amount of data from this study. However, if you look at the study as a whole, the majority of the public really does praise science. My conclusions made hastily in the grocery aisle are clearly faulty. Does this result surprise you like it surprised me?
So why do we scientists think that there is public dislike and distrust in science? Well, the same study showed that about 85% of scientists think that the public’s lack of scientific knowledge is a large problem. Moreover, 83% of scientists see television news as “only fair” or “poor” when it comes to reporting science. My personal thoughts are that scientists observe the society as a whole through the lens of labels they encounter in the grocery store and media portrayals of science. This makes it seem like science is disliked by the public, but certainly the grocery store and television are not representative samples of the public as a whole.
Perhaps the public is skeptical only about very specific areas of science and technology (chemistry, perhaps?). This is what I thought about my own field of study, nanotechnology. I work with a research center whose goal is to promote sustainable use of nanomaterials for the benefit of our society. I, and many of my colleagues, tend to believe that the public is afraid of nanotechnology. But with some more research, I found out that this perception is also mostly wrong!
In a 2004 study on public perception of nanotechnology, survey respondents reported anticipating more benefits than risks and feeling hopeful rather than worried about the emerging field of nanotechnology. In 2009, a study published in Nature Nanotechnology showed that half the public were aware of nanotechnology and a majority perceived that the potential benefits of this technology would outweigh risks. I was wrong about this too!
This conclusion was vividly demonstrated for me during a recent “Adult Swim” event at the Madison Children’s Museum. Members of our center and I discussed nanotechnology with the public using our fluorescent nanodiamond display. Out of all the individuals I had the pleasure of interacting with, none told me that we should stop conducting nanoscience research. Rather, I talked to many enthusiastic and curious individuals who simply wanted to understand what emerging science was coming out of the field of nanotechnology. This personally highlighted the conclusions of all the research I had done. The general public is enthusiastic about science in general and nanotechnology in particular (just like me!).
However, the 2009 nanotechnology study I discussed above also revealed that 44% of survey participants were “unsure” about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology. The authors propose that this fairly large minority group with uncertain opinions suggests that while judgments about nanotechnology are positive now, the tides can easily turn towards the negative. With a set of technologies like this that are poised to revolutionize everything from electronics to airplanes to our energy economy, this perception is extremely important. Statistics like this underline the importance of accurately and clearly communicating the state of the science surrounding nanomaterials’ potential risks and benefits—that’s what we’re trying to do on this blog!
What do you think about nanotechnology? Do you think the potential benefits outweigh the risks? Write your thoughts in the comment section down below and let me know!!! :-)
Final sentences to totally skew the survey results: I think the power of science can help us push the boundaries of nanotechnology while minimizing any potential negative environmental consequences. But, I’m clearly biased, because that’s what my research is focused on!