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October 7, 2008

Poll Finds Many Americans Unaware of Emerging Technologies

Lynn L. Bergeson

On September 30, 2008, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) released the results of a poll regarding nanotechnology and synthetic biology. According to PEN, almost half of U.S. adults have heard nothing about nanotechnology, and nearly nine in 10 Americans say they have heard only a little or nothing at all about synthetic biology. PEN states that, based on the poll results, “the level of U.S. public awareness about nanotechnology has not changed measurably since 2004,” when PEN sponsored the first poll on the topic. In synthetic biology, advanced science and engineering are used to construct or re-design living organisms so that they can carry out specific functions. PEN predicts that this emerging technology will likely develop rapidly in the coming years. According to PEN, the first synthetic biology “blockbuster” drug is anticipated to hit the market in the near future — an affordable treatment for the 500 million people in the world suffering from malaria.

The poll found that about two-thirds of adults have heard nothing about synthetic biology, and only two percent say they have heard “a lot” about it. The poll found that about half of adults say they have heard nothing at all about nanotechnology, and about 50 percent of adults are too unsure about nanotechnology to make an initial judgment on the possible tradeoffs between benefits and risks. Of those willing to make an initial judgment, they think benefits will outweigh risks by a three to one margin when compared to those who believe risks will outweigh benefits. The plurality of respondents, however, believes that risks and benefits will be about equal.