Interdisciplinary Research Group 3: Risk Perception and Social Response

IRG 3 formed its collaborative, international research group around a core question that was on many governing bodies’ minds as they began to pour billions of US dollars into the National Nanotechnology Initiative: Will nanotechnologies experience public backlash and stigma when they are developed and disseminated, and could such a backlash limit the realization of their potential economic and/or social benefits? Understanding the perceived risks and benefits of these emerging technologies and associated social behaviors seemed to present a fairly simple puzzle. However, this seemingly simple puzzle has proved to require a very complicated answer. 

We also anticipated that primary focal points of public concern, in addition to central economic issues such as job creation or loss, would be risk, benefit, regulation, trust, responsibility, and justice, the existence of acceptable/ affordable alternatives, and scientific uncertainty about the risks. Further, we also suspected that views might vary about particular nanomaterials and their enabled products (glossed as ‘application’). We believed that the degree to which experts shared, anticipated, and addressed these concerns would be a powerful predictor of the likelihood of ensuing controversy or backlash. 

IRG 3 has thus conducted novel social research on formative nanotech perceived risks and benefits over time through a well calibrated set of mixed qualitative and quantitative social science research methods aimed at studying the views and beliefs about these new technologies by multiple parties. By ‘multiple parties’ we mean people in numerous different social locations and positions with respect to science and technology (S&T) research and development (R&D)—nanoscale scientists and engineers, nano risk assessment experts, regulators and government agency personnel, industry leaders and workers, NGOs or other social movement and special interest groups, journalists, and members of the public who differ by gender, race/ethnicity, class, occupation, education, and age, and many other characteristics, as well as nationality. An important aspect of our work is a shared interest in investigating the diversity and nuances of views both within and across these categories of difference. We have pursued this interest because of the demonstrated importance of democratic participation to the success of the innovation system (cf., Dietz & Stern 2008), the ethical imperatives of responsible development and innovation, and the challenges to full participation posed by a large and complex multicultural society such as the US. 

Thus, the overarching goals of IRG 3 have been to generate an unprecedented body of new knowledge about the emergent perceived risks and benefits of nanotechnologies and selected other new technologies through a set of linked studies. The scope of the work has included:

• Studying views and social action among multiple stakeholders in the nano-enterprise;

• Developing and documenting methods for public engagement with new technologies in the US and comparative other sites; • Characterizing expert knowledge and regulatory preparedness for safe handling of these novel properties;

• Tracking media and policy attention paid to nanotech risks and benefits to provide critical evidence of risk signal amplification or attenuation; and

• Disseminating the knowledge gained to an array of critical stakeholders, including scientists and engineers developing these new materials and their enabled systems and products, nanotoxicologists assessing the environmental and health risks they present, the nanomaterials industry, policymakers/regulators, journalists, and diverse US publics and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)/ civil society organizations (CSOs). 

Never before has a class of new technologies anywhere in the world been the focus of such a systematic, long-term, comparative multistakeholder analysis of risk perception and societal implications. CNS has made this possible, via the creation of an international, interdisciplinary, state-of-the-art mixed methods research team.


The main theoretical framework for this suite of research projects at inception of the CNS in 2006 derived from the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (e.g., Pidgeon, Kasperson & Slovic 2003), which provides a broad, multifactorial approach to understanding the evolution of past technological (i.e., human-made) risk controversies. For example, changing public and regulatory views on nuclear power have been exhaustively studied by risk analysts from its highly benefit-centric period of strong public support, through to near absolute technological stigma following the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979 (e.g., Erikson 1994), to current cross-national variance in public support for and opposition to nuclear power plants (OECD 2010), to yet further changes in the wake of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident in 2011. However, as our work has demonstrated (Satterfield et al., 2009 and below), nanotech R&D has evolved to the present in the US and abroad with only modest evidence of public awareness, risk aversion, media attention, or widespread protest. As a result, IRG 3 research has moved progressively into more experimental research modes, even as many of the technologies themselves continue to move downstream into wider commercial production and dissemination. This unprecedented lengthy opportunity to study emergent attitudes, beliefs and perceptions is a particular attraction of the nanotechnology context for risk analyses, although it has brought unique challenges as well. As the work has progressed in the absence of once-anticipated risk amplification, analysis also focused on comparisons with other emerging technologies as a means to better understand nanotechnologies’ reception.

The term ‘risk perception’ as we are using it here references cognitive and affective components of risk, which are dynamic and produced through complex drivers. It includes linked concepts such as mental models and templates; but it also focuses on affective responses that are particularly important in ‘fast thinking’ intuitive responses where knowledge is low. For example, in the context of survey research, risk perception also references deeper cultural values and beliefs that often underpin survey responses but are better probed in systematic qualitative research, especially in an upstream emerging technology context. Risk perception research overlaps with but is not the same as public opinion or attitude polls and surveys. In particular, risk perception research has shown that public perceptions are influenced by a wide array of psychological and social factors that public opinion polls rarely examine (Slovic 2000; Leiserowitz 2006).

Complicating this broad research program are a number of theoretical and methodological challenges. First, in spite of a rich body of comparative literature on perceived risks (particularly US publics’) regarding an array of past technologies, the case of nanotechnologies is different in some crucial respects. As indicated above, it has been typified by unusually low public awareness, necessitating the move in our research to what is best understood as ‘far upstream.’ A case in point is the study of public attitude formation and risk/benefit judgment as they take shape and are produced in an attenuated risk terrain. We thus asked more fundamental questions about how people make sense of novel technologies in the context of many unknowns and in some cases unimaginable characteristics and implications. Low awareness has necessitated particularly delicate approaches to how the research and the technologies are framed.

This upstream world (or moment) has also pushed us to consider what comparatively little is known about benefit perception, and what nanotechnologies’ perceived benefits across different sectors signify. Do, for instance, varied publics have ready-to-go templates for making cognitive sense of this new unknown terrain or are they creating them anew? Nanotechnologies emerged in the social and imaginative realm as largely inchoate risk objects, indeed as a kind of tabula rasa risk object(s). Their ubiquity, invisibility and uncertainty suggest consideration as what Morton (2013) has recently referred to as “hyperobjects”—“entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is.” The combination of ubiquity and invisibility of nanotechnologies, along with the complex global/societal contours that mark their development and deployment, challenge risk perception research in entirely unprecedented ways. In addition, the social and political contexts of these molecular sized technologies are complicated by experts whose own judgments of risk and benefit and need for regulation are highly uncertain, particularly regarding longer term, downstream implications and consequences of different nanotechnologies. Together these challenges create a new set of research questions as well as a departure from the usual defaults as to what constitutes risk perception research. 

Will nanotechnologies experience public backlash and stigma when they are developed and disseminated that could limit the realization of their potential economic and/or social benefits? The answer to this deceptively simple question hinges on a complex set of social, political, economic, and cultural factors that are likely to drive sustainability and acceptance or controversy and failure. In addition to economic issues such as job creation or loss, primary focal points of public concern are likely to be risk, regulation, trust, responsibility, and justice, and the degree to which experts share, anticipate, and address these concerns is a powerful predictor of the likelihood of ensuing controversy.