Outreach Going Wrong?

When we talk nano to the public, we are leaving behind key audiences.

Scholars, policy-makers, and outreach specialists in the nanotechnology community may be struggling with toxicological data and regulatory frameworks, but they seem to be able to agree on one thing: The public is unaware of the new technology and uninformed about the science behind it.

Ironically, this conclusion may not be supported by data. Our analyses of national survey data with identical wording over the last 5 years have found widening gaps in nanotech knowledge between the least educated and the most educated citizens. People who are already information rich are benefiting from traditional outreach efforts, such as museum exhibits or NOVA programming. Unfortunately, those who need outreach and education the most—those with little or no formal education—are being left behind.

This should come as no surprise. Data from NSF1 show that four in ten Americans with at least some college education attended a science and technology museum in the past year. Among respondents who have not completed high school, the proportion is less than one in ten. Public opinion research has also shown that respondents with higher socioeconomic status (SES) acquire new information at a higher rate than low SES respondents.2

Our analyses of two large national surveys conducted in 2004 and 2007 (see online appendix for methodological information) show that those respondents with at least a college degree displayed an increase in knowledge levels between 2004 and 2007 while respondents with education levels of less than a high school diploma had a significant decrease in nanotechnology knowledge levels.

These findings ease concerns about uninformed and unaware publics that have had a paralyzing effect on efforts to communicate this new technology. But they also raise concerns that the group most in need—those with the lowest levels of formal education—have not been helped. Among this group, nanotechnology knowledge levels have in fact decreased over time. The scientific community has not done a good job of educating this segment of the public about an issue that may be increasingly difficult to understand for lay audiences, given fuzzy regulatory scenarios, inconclusive reports about risks, and limited coverage in mainstream media.3

The Internet may finally live up to the hype...as a tool for creating a more informed citizenry.

So is there a silver lining in all of this? The answer is a clear “yes.” Our data also allowed us to examine a wide variety of factors that may help audiences close knowledge gaps, including mass media. In multivariate models, the number of days a week that respondents spent online was significantly related to knowledge levels about nanotechnology. It helped those with low formal education levels to catch up with their more educated counterparts.

In other words, the Internet may finally live up to the hype that has surrounded it since the 1990s as a tool for creating a more informed citizenry by serving as a “leveler” of knowledge gaps about nanotechnology. This is particularly encouraging, given recent reports about increasing broadband penetration and migration of science audiences online.4 It is also a clear mandate to researchers to explore the potential of nontraditional ways of connecting with lay audiences about emerging technologies. At the moment, we are not just seeing existing gaps between citizens based on their educational attainment, but every day that researchers spend not addressing these emerging gaps will create a larger disconnect between scientifically literate audiences and the information poor. Closing these gaps is therefore not an option; it is a necessity, especially in light of a planned 2010 US budget that has reduced spending for “education and social dimensions” of nanotechnology to $36.1 million from $39.2 million in 2007.

Elizabeth A. Corley is Lincoln Professor of Public Policy, Ethics & Emerging Technologies at Arizona State University and Dietram A. Scheufele is the John E. Ross Chaired Professor & Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison

2. P.J. Tichenor, G. A. Donohue, C. N. Olien, “Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge,” Public Opin Q, 34(2), 159–70, 1970.
3. A. Dudo, S. Dunwoody, D.A. Scheufele, “The Emergence of Nano News: Tracking Thematic Trends and Changes in Media Coverage of Nanotechnology”. Presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication, Boston, MA; August 2009.

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