Researcher to Study Public Understanding of Nanotechnology Risks

In order to help people better understand emerging research on the safety of the tiny substances called nanoparticles, the National Science Foundation has awarded North Carolina State University's David Berube Ph.D., a $1.4 million grant to determine how the public absorbs scientific information on the emerging technology and other technical issues.

"When the public tries to understand technical information on health and safety, they do not turn to scientific data," Berube says, "but use their own preconceived ideas and biases" to determine what is safe – regardless of whether the science supports their conclusion. Berube says the grant will fund research into how people use these biases to determine whether something is safe. The goal is to develop a "recipe" that can be used by scientists to convey complicated research findings in a way that the public can understand.

Berube, a professor of communication, says that this four-year grant will focus on how the public interprets information about the potential health risks of nanotechnology. Berube notes that the study of how people understand such risks can be tricky because "a lot of this information is about life and death, and most people have trouble understanding the difference between a risk of 1 in 1 billion and a risk of 1 in 1,000."

Nanotechnology is generally defined as technology that uses substances having a size of 100 nanometers or less (thousands of times thinner than a human hair), and is expected to have widespread uses in medicine, consumer products and industrial processes. For example, nanotechnology is already in use in a variety of products, including some brands of sunscreen and cosmetics.

Berube will be using the grant to hold a two-day conference, Communicating Risk in the 21st Century, in Raleigh this summer, and will also provide opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students at NC State to become involved in the research effort.

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