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Helping Nano Professionals Deal with Risk Perception and Communications

by Editor1 last modified October 24, 2011 - 17:17 speaks with Susanna Priest, author of Nanotechnology and the Public: Risk Perception and Risk Communication. Priest explains how, why and where communications professionals and Best Practices will play a crucial role in the continuing march to safely commercialize nanotechnologies -- and ensure nano-driven products and understood by the public and meet the public interest.

Helping Nano Professionals Deal with Risk Perception and Communications Before we dive into your book, tell us a little about your background and what draw you to write this book?

Susanna Priest: I have a broad background in social science and communication research, with degrees in anthropology, sociology, and the PhD in communication. I have been following emerging technologies issues since the late 1980s when I did on dissertation on how people respond to different kinds of technological risks in the news. My work at that time led me to the conclusion that people are often more concerned about what we might call “social risks” rather than physical risks, by which I mean things that seem to challenge their values or their way of life. Since then I’ve worked on communication and policy issues related to stem cells, cloning, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, space exploration, energy conservation, and climate change. How would you rate the public’s perception of nano today?

Susanna Priest: Four to five years ago, news organizations and the public seemed to rail against nano in consumer products. That outrage seems to have calmed of late. Would you say that’s because the nano sector has gotten better at communicating risks and benefits? Or has the media simply moved on, and may come back to stories about nano and risk?

My own impression is that people were never really all that concerned about nanotechnology. It seems to produce a different reaction than biotechnology did. Some activist groups tried briefly to raise public awareness of risks, and there was some media coverage early on, but it didn’t seem to “stick” and has now faded. Yes, the media moved on, but there just wasn’t much public reaction for them to respond to. I wish I could say this is because the nano sector did a better job, and we did learn a lot from various biotechnology controversies about how to communicate with the public – how to look at these issues as two-way dialogues, for example, and not just overwhelm people with technical information. However, I suspect that people’s different “gut” reactions to nano vs. bio may have been more important.

I did a three-year panel study of South Carolina citizens that involved extensive interviews and then a series of follow-up surveys. This was a small, intensive study of only about 75 people, as opposed to a big national survey of thousands – the two lines of research complement one another. The main take-away from the panel study was that people are pretty thoughtful about technology; even though they know little about nano, they have general expectations about technology that can be positive or negative, or a mix of the two.

When risks to human health were beginning to be discussed in the media, there was some visible rise in concern among the panel members, but it didn’t keep rising and in the end was not a statistically significant change. In this age of social media (Facebook, twitter, etc) are there new steps researchers (institutions, individuals govt, etc.) should be taking to communicate to the public about nano?

Susanna Priest: Of course all these groups need to use social media to get their messages across, but I think the basic underlying content needs to be about the same. We shouldn’t get carried away with the medium and forget about the message! We need to communicate with publics in a two-way manner that respects their opinions, and we need to be transparent about possible risks and not just hype benefits (otherwise we are not believable). Sometimes the new social media technologies can help us do these things better. Very interesting background, Susanna. Let's get back specifically to your book. Who is it written for and what is the need you see for it in today’s research and news coverage climate?

Susanna Priest: I imagined primarily an audience of engineers and technical communication specialists who might work with engineers, including their public relations people. I also imagined an audience of students interested in science journalism and related fields, as well as technical communication students. But I do hope the book will be of some interest to social scientists, as well. You put a lot of focus on what you call ‘Upstream Engagement” for managing (or dealing with) public perceptions of nanotechnology. Can you share a little about what that entails, and suggest steps that researchers can take on this?

Susanna Priest: I wouldn’t describe “upstream engagement” as a management tool, although I suppose some people are using it with that in mind. Many of the people who promote consulting the public early and often about emerging technologies genuinely think it’s the right thing to do – that it will improve democracy by allowing more people to participate in technology policy decisions. Others just want to head off trouble, but this approach wasn’t really designed for that purpose. The two essays about the National Citizens’ Technology Forum that I included in this book illustrate one approach to upstream public engagement that was tried for nano. At the moment this is just a sort of experiment, but we do need new forums for people to express their concerns and deliberate thoughtfully about wise courses of action with respect to all kinds of technologies. Government oversight officials and regulators continue to make their best efforts to identify nanotechnology risks.  What do you see as the best ways nano-related professionals can keep the public informed and avoid communications missteps?

Susanna Priest: This is enormously difficult because we don’t want to scare people away from useful products, especially things like medical applications that can save lives. On the other hand, we can’t pretend there are no risks. All technologies have risks. Eventually there could be an accident involving nano (or, at a minimum, a bad public scare), and if people feel they have not been dealt with in an open and transparent way, this can cause a lot of anger and resentment – it’s a big risk in itself! Paul Thompson wrote about finding this difficult middle ground in an essay he contributed to the book, one I put at the very end because it seemed to sum up this dilemma. With funding for many nano-related projects diminishing (or under strain), many research projects and/or institutions simply can’t fund distinct communication efforts. What do you recommend to researchers in those circumstances?

Susanna Priest: Nanotechnology is in many ways an applied field designed to move quickly out into the commercial sector and generate new revenues; it is not just pure science, in other words. So I hope that those commercial interests will recognize how important it is to continue to be progressive with respect to public communication – to let people know what they are doing, to be transparent about risks as well as benefits, to encourage opportunities to deliberate, and to take public criticism seriously. This is very much in their own self-interest. Many of the social scientists like myself who were funded to look at nanotechnology and public opinion will probably move on to other problems like climate change.