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New study finds religion in U.S. shapes a suspect view of nanotechnology

December 08, 2008
PHOENIX - Americans are "partly relying on their religious beliefs when they make sense of science and technology issues," says Elizabeth Corley, associate professor of public policy in Arizona State University's School of Public Affairs and co-author of a new report on the subject.

Published online in the journal "Nature Nanotechnology," survey results from the U.S. and Europe reveal a sharp contrast in perceptions of nanotechnology and its capacity to alter the fundamentals of nature. Those views correlate directly with the levels of religious views in each country surveyed.

In the U.S. and a few European countries, where religion plays a larger role in everyday life, nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as morally less acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to find it ethically suspect and view nanotechnology through the prism of religion.

"It's estimated that nanotechnology will be a $3.1 trillion global industry by 2015," says Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication and lead author of the study. "Nanotechnology is one of those areas that is starting to touch nearly every part of our lives."

Nanotechnology involves controlling matter of an atomic and molecular size to develop devices of an incredibly small scale, usually 100 nanometers or smaller. The technology is becoming more pervasive, with more than a thousand products ranging from more efficient solar panels and scratch-resistant automobile paint, to souped-up golf clubs already on the market.

"The level of ‘religiosity' in a particular country is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not people see nanotechnology as morally acceptable," says Scheufele. "What we captured is nanospecific, but it is also representative of a larger attitude toward science and technology. It raises a big question: What's really going on in our public discourse where science and religion often clash?"

The study compared answers to identical questions posed by the 2006 Eurobarometer public opinion survey and a 2007 poll by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center conducted under the auspices of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University. The survey was led by Corley and Scheufele.

The findings from the 2007 U.S. survey also suggest the U.S. public's knowledge of nanotechnology has been static since a similar 2004 survey. Scheufele and Corley point to a lack of media interest and the notion that people who already hold strong views on the technology are not necessarily seeking factual information about it.

Scheufele says "there is absolutely no change in what people know about nanotechnology between 2004 and 2007. This is partly due to the fact that mainstream media are only now beginning to pay closer attention to the issue. There has been a lot of elite discussion in Washington, D.C, but not a lot of public discussion. And nanotechnology has not had that catalytic moment, that key event that draws public attention to the issue."

The School of Public Affairs is part of the ASU College of Public Programs at the Downtown Phoenix campus. The College embraces students and faculty dedicated to rigorous education and research in the service of social and economic change. Academic units within the College include the Schools of Community Resources and Development; Criminology and Criminal Justice; Public Affairs; and Social Work. Areas of expertise include: improving the quality of life for individuals and families from all backgrounds; innovative approaches to public management; and nonprofit leadership and organizational effectiveness.


High-resolution photos of Corley are available at the following links:

To view the complete report by Corley and Scheufele, visit:


Elizabeth Corley
Associate Professor of Public Policy

ASU School of Public Affairs

(602) 496-0462


Corey Schubert
Manager of Media Communications, ASU College of Public Programs
602.496.0406 office

602.370.6128 cell