Nano-knowledge: Big Issues with Small Science

Professor Dan Lewis studies how to help the public understand and accept the new science of nanotechnology.

By Marilyn Sherman


Professor Lewis's research found that people weigh equity, privacy and risk to assess new nanotechnology

Professor Lewis's research found that people weigh equity, privacy and risk to assess new nanotechnology.
Photo by David Bacon


Dan Lewis at the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco, which is beginning work on a project to develop tools for public understanding of nanotechnology
Dan Lewis at the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco, which is beginning work on a project to develop tools for public understanding of nanotechnology.
Photo by David Bacon
Suppose that a bird flu epidemic is threatening American cities, with scores of people sickening and dying each day. A revolutionary new scanner uses nanotechnology to detect the disease early, allowing the possibility of treatment. How would you react to using this scanner, composed of structures so miniscule they're measured in millionths of a millimeter?

Through nanotechnology, which works at the molecular level and is hailed as the field of the future, scientists are developing groundbreaking new tools for health, welfare and industry. However, while nanoscience brings a bundle of benefits, it also sparks some skepticism for the average American. How can the public learn to appreciate this baffling science of the very small? And more importantly, how can the science be introduced to maximize understanding?

Dan Lewis, SESP professor of human development and social policy, tackled these questions recently in a two-year research study in connection with Northwestern's Institute for Nanotechnology. Entitled "Beyond the Deficit Model in the Public Understanding of Nanotechnology," this study presented thousands of people with scenarios like the bird flu story and sought to discover the frameworks they use to assess technological innovation and change.

He found three key factors that influenced the degree of acceptance of nanotechnology — equity, privacy and risk — and now he's advancing a new way of looking at how to educate the public about new science.


No small solution
As Lewis sees the problem, "Lots of scholars look at what people know about science and see deficits of knowledge. The conventional way of thinking about public opinion and science was to think the public doesn't know much about science and ask how the deficit could be remedied." According to Lewis, this method, which emphasizes lack of knowledge in a specific domain and focuses on increasing that knowledge, is usually unsuccessful.

He points to misunderstandings about early AIDS research and the European furor over genetically modified food as examples of the shortcomings of this "disastrous" approach. Despite many programs and studies to increase public knowledge, "Lo and behold, knowledge doesn't go up very much," he notes. "The public is generally suspicious and concerned about new science...and there needs to be a better way of researching how people make sense of new information."

Lewis took the innovative tack of linking public opinion to fundamental understandings about the learning process. "I am basing my approach on how people learn, rather than what they know." He calls this perspective a "cognitive model." That scheme finds people use comparison and analogy to create meaning when they are faced with puzzling new information, and it leads to respecting the frameworks people use rather than seeing their knowledge as inadequate, Lewis says.


The three keys
Using the cognitive approach, Lewis's research study surveyed thousands of adults about different uses of high-tech nanoscanners in hypothetical scenarios — bird flu, bioterrorism and Alzheimer's disease. The terrorism scenario described a threat of biochemical attack and a portable scanner that could detect the chemicals before they did harm, and the Alzheimer's scenario depicted a scanner that could detect the disease in time for early interventions.

In all three scenarios, Lewis's surveys and focus groups probed three concerns people draw on to make sense of brand-new scientific applications. He concluded, "Depending on context and learning style, individuals balance equity, privacy and risk to assess technological applications."

Regarding risk, Lewis found that citizens judged nanotechnology devices most acceptable when the larger community faced a high risk and when the device itself posed no danger. In other words, an imminent worldwide bird flu epidemic and a safe scanner would make testing more acceptable.

In relation to privacy, Lewis concluded that a high degree of privacy led to more likelihood of accepting a high-tech device. For example, the bird flu device was most acceptable if scanning was voluntary and reporting the results to authorities was voluntary too. In-depth interviews revealed that, in general, Americans accept some loss of privacy as the price of technological progress.

Finally, regarding equity, Lewis found that the broader the access to the nanotechnology device, the more the public accepted it. For instance, in the case of the bird flu epidemic respondents approved most highly of government scanning of everyone in the nation to assess how many people were at risk. To pay for the scanning, they favored a tax increase, because it would ensure that everyone had access, over a $1,000 fee or health insurance, both of which would limit access.

"The lower the risk, the greater the privacy and the greater the equity, the more likely the application of the technology will be acceptable to the public," Lewis explains. Accordingly, he advises scientists and policy makers, "Think about applications that will increase privacy, increase equity and lessen risk, and you'll get more public acceptance."

Other aspects of the study identified characteristics of people who were adopters, noncommitters, and skeptics regarding nanotechnology. Age, education, gender, trust toward government and other factors came into play. For example, people who were skeptical about new technologies tended to be more educated, younger and less confident in government.

Lewis got involved in researching nanotechnology because of Northwestern University's Institute for Nanotechnology, which is at the forefront in the field. He is one of many celebrated scholars on the faculty of this international interdisciplinary research center directed by Chad Mirkin, an umbrella for the multimillion-dollar nanotechnology research efforts at the University. Areas of research range from transportation to electronics to health, as with the recent establishment of a center to develop innovative nanotechnology approaches and devices to combat cancer.


For the future
In the future, Lewis plans to write a book for scholars, scientists and policy makers based on his research. "I want them to consider alternatives because the way things are usually done runs into brick walls," he says. "The public does not become more accepting of science as the government and industry introduce more public education."

Image courtesy of Lonnie Shea/Phil Messersmith and Northwestern's Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine (IBNAM)
Image courtesy of Lonnie Shea/Phil Messersmith and Northwestern's Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine (IBNAM)

"That approach is too much based on pumping knowledge into passive recipients and not thinking about how people process new understandings," he explains. "We have to spend less time promoting the technology and more time understanding how people make sense of new science."

A priority for Lewis is a productive relationship between government and the public. "I hope to get people in the federal government to recognize how to affect public acceptance," he says. He observes that certain political, religious and entertainment groups in society "want to make people afraid of new things, which is not good for the way the public understands science," he says.

His research on nanotechnology has implications not only for the burgeoning new field of nanotechnology but also for any new science. "Science is going to continue to grow and affect our lives, and the notion that the public is going to accept it unconditionally is faulty," notes Lewis.

Lewis's way of looking at science and public opinion may provide a much-needed key. "Often progress is made," he says, "when you bring in a framework that hasn't been used before, and all of a sudden it makes scholars look at problems in new ways."

Image courtesy of Lonnie Shea/Phil Messersmith and Northwestern's Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine (IBNAM)
Image courtesy of Lonnie Shea/Phil Messersmith and Northwestern's Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine (IBNAM)


This work was supported primarily by the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Initiative of the National Science Foundation under NSF Award Number EEC-0118025. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.
By Marilyn Sherman