What do Europeans expect from nanotechnologies? Where and how would they like them to be used?
In terms of responsible research and innovation, technology developers and public authorities are called upon to be responsive to the hopes and concerns of citizens, and to take these into account in research- and policy-making.
Between March 2014 and September 2014, NanoDiode conducted an online survey on European citizens’ views on nanotechnologies. The aim of the survey was to provide foundations for NanoDiode’s own public engagement activities and to give valuable input for stakeholders working in the field. Through the NanoDiode website, over 1.500 Europeans provided their views on future impacts of nanotechnologies, describing both their preferred areas of innovation and the types of communication and information they desire. The Report of the citizens’ survey and in-depth interviews summarises most important findings:
- Overall respondents felt that nanotechnologies will have a positive effect on both “our overall way of life”, and on European economies.
- Impacts of nanotechnologies on the environment and the safety of European society were, overall, viewed with less confidence, although positive views are the majority here too.
- Regarding the different applications or product areas, respondents were less enthusiastic towards products that are used close to one’s body, such as food, cosmetics or textiles, with the only exception of medicine, where the use of nanotechnologies is considered positive by most of the participants.
- Respondents almost unanimously welcomed application areas that could be directly linked to societal challenges, such as climate change.
- Public institutions, companies and CSOs were all appraised as important nanotechnology communicators. When it comes to different media, print and TV still outweighed social media and the Internet.
While surveys can offer a baseline of quantitative information on public perceptions to be considered in research and policy, this information should be deepened and complemented with qualitative methods: the preferences of citizens can result from a number of different conceptions, hopes and fears. The results thus hopefully function as an invitation to stakeholders; as encouragement to dig deeper into the findings, and to engage the public on their preferences and needs, in order to determine how such views could be taken into account when forming research and policy.
As the involvement of public perceptions is not always as easy as it sounds, NanoDiode carried out additional in-depth stakeholder interviews in six partner countries, setting out to probe this important, yet difficult question of responsiveness: What kind of role should public perceptions and opinions have for the use and development of nanotechnologies? Where should the attitudes, hopes and fears present in the general public exactly flow into? Who should take them into account and how?
The insights of stakeholders could be summarised as recommendations to stakeholders for fostering responsiveness in research and policy. For improving the chances for responsiveness, the involvement of the public needs to be supported by the respective organisations’ head and take place early enough. In the latter stages of the innovation chain, the resources that have already been invested make true consideration of public preferences more difficult. Beyond that, the methods for dialogue and discussion need to be chosen according to the target group and context.