Q&A: Professor provides analysis of work on nanotechnology research
Dec. 10, 2008
Life sciences communication professor Dietram Scheufele provides Wisconsin Week with a more in-depth look at his research on nanotechnology and religion.
Wisconsin Week: Why has nanotechnology, as opposed to other kinds of science, become a moral dilemma for many people as viewed through the prism of religion?
Scheufele: I am not sure if nanotechnology is the only recent example of a scientific area that challenged some people’s religious views. In fact, for genetically engineered organisms we saw similar discussions about “unnatural science” and about scientists “interfering with nature” or “playing God.” But two things are different for nanotechnology. It has a potential impact on virtually all areas of life, ranging from medicine to materials and the environment. And as a result, the potential conflict between religiosity and science will likely be much more salient for nanotechnology, in particular with respect to nano-bio-info-cogno (NBIC) technologies that may, in the future, enable us to create synthetic life and intelligence without divine intervention.
WW: How do the views of Americans differ from those of people in countries where religion is less a part of everyday life?
DS: It depends on which countries we compare the United States to. Our analyses showed that the United States is in many ways very similar to countries like Italy, Ireland and Austria, who have deeply rooted religious traditions. But the United States differs significantly from more secular European countries like France, Germany or Denmark,with a less religious citizenry and fewer moral qualms about nanotechnology.
WW: Is it clear that religion, and not other factors such as education or a nation’s investment in science and technology, is the driver for this phenomenon?
DS: This is a fair question. It is reasonable to assume, for example, that in countries where religion plays a more important role in everyday life, religious views also shape educational policies or even science funding, which, in turn, influence attitudes about nanotechnology. We therefore controlled for a range of factors in each country, including students’ science performance in school and research productivity relative to public funding for nanotechnology in each country. And the religious climate remained the strongest predictor.
WW: How do we explain the paradox of such a dynamic and pervasive field of technology coming under a cloud of moral scrutiny in a country that thrives on technology?
DS: I am not sure if it is really such a paradox. Science and religion are not incompatible. And many of the questions that modern science raises do not have scientific answers. Is it moral or not to create new life, for example, if that will ever be possible? And what are the social effects of virtually invisible surveillance devices that can trace our every movement? The answers to these questions depend on our values, ethics, beliefs and morals. And society will only find answers if all of these considerations are taken into account and help us understand the implications of what science has made or will make possible.
WW: We hear much about the moral issues posed by things like stem cell research, but we don’t read much about nanotechnology in that context. How come?
DS: Nanotechnology has not been an issue that has received systematic media attention. Our research shows that only seven journalists in the United States have written more than 25 stories on nanotechnologies, and two of them have just left their newspapers. In other words, the majority of coverage has been provided by journalists who have paid sporadic attention to the issue at best. As a result, many people are still unaware of the science underlying nanotechnology, and our research shows no changes in levels of information about nanotechnology among the general public over the last few years.
At the same time, we are seeing three to four new nanotechnology consumer end products hit the market each week right now, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, with the majority of products coming out of the United States This means that we are using nanotechnology in many of our daily activities without really being aware of much of the issues surrounding the science behind it.
WW: What does this research infer about our public dialogue about science in general?
DS: I think we’re seeing scientific issues morph into political ones, especially for nanotechnology where people’s moral concerns about what science should do may be as important as their factual understanding of what science can do. And as a result public debates about science increasingly move into the political arena. Stem cell research is a great example of an issue that has triggered similar reactions. It is an issue that has been heavily influenced by strategic campaigns on both sides. Interest groups have spent a lot of money researching what kinds of messages make people more or less likely to support certain aspects of stem cell research, and they’ve put considerable effort into framing the issue to their advantage.
One thing that is frustrating in these public debates is that science is often virtually absent. We have religious groups, we have Michael J. Fox, but we really have very little discussion about the scientific merits of stem cell research.
WW: Do we need to rethink the way we talk about science and its implications in America?
DS: Absolutely. Effective communication with wide cross sections of society is probably more important now than it’s ever been. Issues like nanotechnology and stem cell research raise questions about what it means to be human, what kind of applications we want in the market and how quickly. The tricky part is that, while scientists generally realize how important it is to connect with the public, many people have taken the approach that it will be enough if we just put sound science out there. But unfortunately that’s not really supported by our research.
Rather, we need to realize that different publics have different informational needs, react very differently to information, and — most importantly — are looking for answers to questions that often have very little to do with the scientific issues surrounding emerging technologies. As some of our recent research here at Wisconsin shows, trying to make sense of the moral implications of nano breakthroughs based on their own belief or value systems is much more important for some groups in society at the moment than understanding the science behind it.