A communication quandry

L.J. Frewer

Research output: Contribution to journalEditorialAcademic


Chemistry & Industry 25 January 2010 Comment A communication quandry If nanotechnology is to avoid the fate that befell GM crops in Europe then regulators will need to be honest with the general public about the risks & benefits, says Lynn Frewer There is increasing investment in the private and public sectors in innovative new products underpinned by nanotechnology. Emerging developments in nanotechnology are likely to deliver profound benefits to human and animal health, sustainable production and the development of novel materials and production processes. However, successful implementation and commercialisation of nanotechnology is contingent on societal acceptance of the technology, and consumer responses to specific applications. Societal acceptance is contextualised by increasing societal debate about potential risks and benefits associated with different applications of nanotechnology and whether additional risk assessments and regulations are required in order to ensure that novel nanotechnology applications are safe. Research has shown that, in general, the public are more tolerant of the potential risks associated with medical applications of emerging technologies, compared to other applications, for example, in food production, personal care products or novel materials development. People are intolerant of even very small risks if they are not perceived to be associated with personal benefits, or if they are perceived as being uncontrollable by those exposed to them. Societal acceptance of the strategic development, application and commercialisation of nanotechnology is contingent on understanding consumer perceptions of risk and benefit associated with specific applications. Failing to address societal concerns about an emerging technology may result in public rejection of that technology and its applications, as was indeed the case with genetically modified (GM) foods in Europe and some other regions of the world. In the case of GM foods, the absence of tangible benefits associated with the first generation of GM foods, in particular those perceived to be desirable by consumers, resulted in the consumer perception that the benefits accrued to producers, whereas the risks were shouldered by consumers. Unsurprisingly, this contributed to widespread public rejection of GM food products. In addition, the perceived lack of consumer control over consumption of GM foods, a direct consequence of regulators failing to implement an effective labelling strategy for GM, increased public negativity. Increasingly, research into societal acceptance of emerging technologies has focused on how individuals make trade-offs between perceived risks and benefits, for example, to human health, the environment and social and economic factors. Communication about emerging applications of nanotechnology needs to take account of how risks, as well as benefits associated with the technology and its applications, may vary between different individuals. This information needs to be taken into account when developing and marketing products as well. In addition, the issue of uncertainty regarding, for example, the health impact of engineered nanoparticles (ENP) may increase negative consumer perceptions. For instance, evidence that bioaccumulation of such particles in specific parts of the body, such as myocardial or neural tissues, raises the question of whether this affects health. A case in point, a recent publication in Nature Nanotechnology may raise particular societal concerns. The focus of the research was on nanomedicine and implied that, firstly, proximity to ENP may cause DNA damage, independent of any direct cellular exposure to nanoparticles. This raises many issues associated with scientific uncertainty and unintended consequences, which may be unacceptable to some members of the public. The concept of ‘DNA damage’ is likely to be perceived as very risky. The scientific findings may not only heighten public safety concerns about nanotechnology, but increase risks perceived to be associated with other nanotechnology applications in, for example, the agri-food and cosmetic sectors. Public demand for appropriate, and potentially novel, risk assessment methodologies, together with associated regulatory frameworks, may result from research findings such as these. Appropriate responses to such public demands on the part of industry and regulatory institutions are thus becoming more urgent. A proactive risk management strategy is required. In particular, the public are likely to be reassured if they perceive that an appropriate strategy for the assessment of the risks of engineered nanoparticles is being implemented, and this is communicated to interested stakeholders, including the general public. Such an assessment and communication strategy must address any uncertainties, such as those reported in the article, if public trust in regulatory bodies and industry is to be developed and maintained. Even if public priorities are not identical to those addressed in technical risk assessments, risk communication must address these. One of the problems with communication about GM foods was that the messages focused on the concept of ‘substantial equivalence’. In other words, that the new foods were the same as, and as safe as, conventional foods, given that they demonstrate the same characteristics and composition. Research shows that consumer concerns focus on perceptions that GM foods are unnatural, but this was not addressed in industry and governmental communications about them. Finally, there is extensive discussion regarding the use of public engagement in the policy processes associated with emerging technologies. The assumed advantages include, among others, regaining societal trust in policy makers and societal acceptance of decisions associated with policy development and implementation, including technology acceptance. Public engagement in the strategic development of nanotechnology may only improve citizen confidence if there is an explicit willingness on the part of the regulatory, scientific and industrial community to re-specify direction and goals of research and development based on the outcomes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27
JournalChemistry & Industry
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2010

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