Most Australians (84%) feel positive that science and technology are improving society. These positive perceptions have been strongly held over the last five years.
That’s a big relief for scientists worried about recent attacks on the science of climate change and on immunisation.
It’s the key result from a national survey into community attitudes to science and nanotechnology.
The poll of 1,100 Australians, conducted in October last year, pointed to medical advances including the recent development of swine flu and cervical cancer vaccines, along with internet technologies, as key reasons for recipients’ positive views of science.
The survey, conducted for the Federal Government, was presented in Sydney at ICONN 2010 – Australia’s International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.
“The survey shows that people’s attitudes to nanotechnology are complex,” said Dr Craig Cormick, manager of public affairs and community engagement at the federal government’s Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.
“At the big picture scale, people are very positive, but that view fragments when you look at different applications.”
The report revealed that Australians are excited about the potential of nanotechnology in areas such as solar energy, and environmental protection but cautious about the use of nanotechnology for use in food, cosmetics or for military applications.
“These different attitudes really align with people’s values,” Dr Cormick said. “You could almost say that the technology itself is irrelevant.”
The positive view most people have about nanotechnology is also balanced by concern about unknowns, the survey showed. “It’s not worries about nano-stuff in their computers,” Dr Cormick said. “It’s worries about what people are putting in their mouths or on their skin.”
“They want to know that it works, and that someone is making it safe.”
The poll also showed that the general public really want to hear both sides of the story when it comes to new technology. “They want to hear the benefits and the risks, and be in a position to make their own mind up,” Dr Cormick said.
“The public does want a lot more information on nanotechnology and they want it from sources they put trust in.” Exactly who those sources might be vary widely, he said. For some people it is NGOs, others want to hear from the government, and other groups rely on the advice of friends. “A few want to hear it from the media,” he added.
The message for scientists, governments and universities is to involve the public at a much earlier stage, Dr Cormick said. “The scientific community needs to have a better understanding of what the public are concerned about and make sure that they take the public along with them.”
The results of the survey can be downloaded here.