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What is the problem? A literature review on challenges
facing the communication of nanotechnology to the public

Åsa Boholm & Simon Larsson

Received: 18 January 2019 /Accepted: 4 April 2019 /Published online: 23 April 2019
# The Author(s) 2019

Abstract Ethical and societal issues concerning justice,
safety, risks, and benefits are well-established topics in
the discourses of nanotechnology innovation and devel-
opment. That nanotechnology innovation should be so-
cially and ethically responsible is generally accepted by
scientists, policymakers, regulators, and industry, and
the idea of public involvement and communication is
part and parcel of the conceptualization of responsible
technology development. This paper systematically re-
views the social science research literature accumulated
between 2002 and 2018 on the communication of nano-
technology. A critical and constructivist perspective on
policy problems guides the analysis. Two questions are
asked of this literature: what problems are identified
regarding the communication of nanotechnology to the
public? How can these problems be managed and/or
resolved? Three different problem themes are identified:
the public, societal institutions, and nanotechnology
itself. While for some identified problems, there are
corresponding solutions; in other instances, there is little
alignment between problems and solutions. In conclu-
sion, the paper recommends that in communicating

nanotechnology to the public: (i) the objectives of com-
munication should be defined; (ii) previous research
should be used responsibly; (iii) communication strate-
gies should be adapted to the context; and (iv) effort
should not be spent trying to develop a generic frame-
work for communication.

Keywords Responsible innovation . Nanotechnology.

Science communication . Upstream engagement .

Literature review

Introduction

When nanotechnology hype began to mount almost two
decades ago, it was readily recognized that to reach its
full revolutionary potential, nanotechnology develop-
ment had to be Bresponsible^ (Macnaghten 2010;
Pidgeon et al. 2011). The gigantic National
Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), established in the year
2000 in the United States (US), declared that
Bnanotechnology is helping to considerably improve,
even revolutionize, many technology and industry sec-
tors: information technology, energy, environmental sci-
ence, medicine, homeland security, food safety, and
transportation, among many others^ (NNI 2018a). The
responsible development of nanotechnology that ad-
dresses the ethical, legal, and societal issues (ELSI) of
nanotechnology is one of the NNI’s four objectives,
understood to advance the other, i.e., research, commer-
cialization, worker education, and public engagement.
The way ELSI is addressed is assumed to determine

J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11051-019-4524-3

Å. Boholm (*)
School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, PO Box 115,
SE 405 30 Göteborg, Sweden
e-mail: asa.boholm@gu.se

S. Larsson
Gothenburg Research Institute, School of Business, Economics
and Law, University of Gothenburg, PO Box 603, SE 405
30 Göteborg, Sweden
e-mail: simon.larsson@gu.se

http://crossmark.crossref.org/dialog/?doi=10.1007/s11051-019-4524-3&domain=pdf

http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0247-3798

public trust and the future of innovation driven by
nanotechnology (NNI 2018b).

The NNI has served as a role model for other countries
aspiring to compete in cutting-edge nanotechnology devel-
opment. The responsible development of technology is
currently a widely accepted ideal in European Union
(EU) research and innovation policies (Coenen 2016). It
is generally accepted by scientists, policymakers, regula-
tors, and industry that issues concerning environmental
impact, health, and safety should be addressed responsibly,
ensuring that any new technology benefits society. ELSI
has therefore become an important consideration in inno-
vation (Coenen 2016). According to this ideal of technol-
ogy innovation, the societal need for technology, technol-
ogy regulation, and risk management and safety, as well as
ethical implications must be thoroughly addressed
(Pidgeon et al. 2011: 1696).

The ideal of the responsible development of nanotech-
nology implies sensitivity to public perceptions and public
trust at an early stage of technology development (Breggin
and Carothers 2006). Responsible technology develop-
ment is further understood to have the capacity to counter-
act failure due to public lack of acceptance of, or opposi-
tion to, new technology. Already at an early stage of
innovation, US scientists and policymakers worried that
the public might turn against nanotechnology (Friedman
and Egolf 2005). This is what happened in Europe with
genetically modified organisms (GMOs): concern over
risk and the lack of trust in science, experts, and regulators
were factors that turned the public against the technology
as such, the industry, and the products (Wynne 2001). For
history not to repeat itself in the form of public distrust of
regulatory agencies and scientific experts, consumer boy-
cotts of products and companies, citizen pressure on
policymakers and regulators, and amplification of risks in
the media, foresight and sensitivity to public concern have
been recurrent mantras regarding the development of
nanotechnology (Sylvester et al. 2009). It has been argued
that developers and industry, as well as policymakers and
regulators, must be aware of possible public concerns and
of the societal dynamics of media and interest groups
before they manifest as protests and social movements
(David and Thompson 2011).

Upstream engagement in nanotechnology, i.e., early
public involvement in the processes of technology de-
velopment and innovation, as well as the public provi-
sion of relevant and correct information regarding nano-
technology, has been envisaged as the road forward
(Pidgeon et al. 2017; Rogers-Hayden et al. 2007).

Social scientists have argued that technology should be
democratically governed, which calls for Breflexive^
learning processes to develop Bscientific citizenship,^
reflexive governance, and citizen capacity in science
(Miah 2017; Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007: 203).
Communication with the public is generally agreed to be
necessary for upstream engagement (Priest 2012), un-
derstood as part and parcel of the social regulation of
nanotechnology (Pidgeon et al. 2017; Priest 2009: 761).

The responsible development of nanotechnology to
safeguard the environment, human health, and safety,
and to ensure that the new technology benefits society, is
understood to require citizen involvement, dialog, and
participation. If we look more closely into the literature
on the Bcommunication of nanotechnology to the
public,^ several broad communicative goals can be
identified (Delgado et al. 2011). Pidgeon and Rogers-
Hayden (2007: 192) suggested three arguments for pub-
lic engagement. The normative argument postulates that
dialog is a good thing in itself: it is part of democracy
and allows room for public values and attitudes in
decision-making. The instrumental argument proposes
that dialog with the public increases the legitimacy of
decisions and enhances trust. The substantive argument
claims that dialog creates better decisions and outcomes.
The normative objectives of public inclusion and delib-
eration imply broad consultation with stakeholders and
the public as well as foresight and reflexivity concerning
ethical and legal issues. From this normative position,
dialog and public participation are essential values re-
lated to innovation, and all these activities rely on infor-
mation exchange and the understanding of messages.

Since the mid-1990s when the field emerged, consid-
erable social science research into nanotechnology has
been published. Policymakers have understood social
science to be essential in grasping the dynamics of
public attitudes and perceptions and in forming a basis
for developing effective tools for gaining public accep-
tance of nanotechnology innovation (Ebbesen 2008).
Social science research on nanotechnology is multidis-
ciplinary, including sociology, psychology, political sci-
ence, social anthropology, science and technology stud-
ies, and media and communication studies. The accu-
mulated research has provided many insights into how
nanotechnology is perceived by the public, how it is
represented by the media, how media information af-
fects public perceptions, and how policy is formed and
developed. Many studies have been conducted in the
US, the EU, and elsewhere (for overviews of the field,

86 Page 2 of 21 J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86

see Duncan 2011; Kahan 2009; Priest 2012; Ronteltap
et al. 2011; Satterfield et al. 2009; Siegrist 2010).

This paper aims to present an overview of the re-
search literature on the communication of nanotechnol-
ogy to the public between 2002 and 2018. We will
systematically identify the problems defined and solu-
tions suggested in this research. We contribute by pro-
viding an extensive overview of the communication of
nanotechnology to the public. By adopting a holistic
critical and constructivist approach, this exercise pro-
vides a stepping stone to further research and policy
work on what socially Bresponsible^ nanotechnology
innovation and development might mean and how it
might be implemented. The study also contributes to
the general discussion of science communication
concerning new technology.

Method, research questions, and analytical
framework

This paper presents a literature review of published
peer-reviewed papers (listed in the references) that ad-
dress the topic of the communication of nanotechnology
to the public. The papers were identified through a
search in the Scopus publication database conducted in
February 2018 and through ongoing searches in Google
Scholar. The search terms have been Bnano^ in conjunc-
tion with Bcommunication,^ Bpublic,^ Bparticipation,^
Bengagement,^ and Bdialog^ to appear in title, abstract,
keywords, or main body of text. Altogether, 62 different
published journal articles were identified. All 62 papers
meeting the search criteria were included in the sample.
The oldest study was published in 2002 and the latest in
2018. Some papers explicitly address nanotechnology
communication and have Bcommunication^ among
their keywords, whereas in others, the presence of the
topic is less explicit. Many of the papers address com-
munication issues in their discussion sections, where the
implications of research findings for practice, regula-
tion, or policy are considered. The papers were pub-
lished in a broad range of multidisciplinary journals,
though four dominate the sample (in order of frequen-
cy): Journal of Nanoparticle Research, Risk Analysis:
An International Journal, Public Understanding of
Science, and Nanoethics. The literature review is not
claimed to be exhaustive, but the sample presents a
broad range of published research papers giving ample

insight into what scholars discuss when addressing the
communication of nanotechnology to the public.

The analysis was inspired by Carol Bacchi’s (1999,
2012) approach to policy analysis. Her analytical and
theoretical framework sees policy embedded in a dis-
cursive construct that, implicitly or explicitly, estab-
lishes problems in need of policy intervention via man-
agement and mitigation. From this perspective,
problematizations that underlie policy are understood
as often taken for granted: they are accepted as Btruths^
beyond questioning (Bacchi 2012). The BWhat is a
problem?^ approach allows for the systematic decon-
struction and scrutiny of the underlying assumptions of
policy problems. The analysis brings these assumptions
into the open, enabling a critical approach to policy that
can be applied both theoretically and in practical policy
work.

According to Bacchi (1999), all problems with policy
implications have a generic structure: something is iden-
tified as a problem for some reason, and then is isolated,
defined, and characterized with regard to its causes and
consequences. Defining the problem entails choosing
certain elements, characteristics, and causal explana-
tions while excluding others. Some elements are
foregrounded while others are backgrounded. Since
the problem definition and its characterization include
causal assumptions about how the problem came into
existence, the problem definition paves the way for
solutions. Problem definitions and solutions are concep-
tually related since solutions are often logically and
rationally contained in the problem framing
(Lancaster and Ritter 2014). However, in policy
work, this is not always the case: problems and
solutions can be decoupled without any logical
relationship between the two. The identification
of a solution may also sometimes preclude the
definition of a problem.

The research questions addressed to the literature
were developed from the BWhat is a problem?^ ap-
proach to policy analysis. The questions answer to the
overall aim of providing a systematic and critical anal-
ysis of the social science research field of nanotechnol-
ogy and public communication. Each article in the sam-
ple of 62 papers was read and analyzed with regard to
the following questions:

1. How is the problem of the Bcommunication of
nanotechnology to the public^ conceptualized,
characterized, and explained?

J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86 Page 3 of 21 86

2. What solutions are offered to the problem of the
Bcommunication of nanotechnology to the public^?

3. What is the relationship between the constructions
of problems and of solutions concerning the
Bcommunication of nanotechnology to the public^?

The relationship between problem and solution was
not analyzed at the level of the individual paper. Far
from all papers did provide answers to all three ques-
tions. The analysis of the individual papers adds up to a
meta-analysis of the material.

The remainder of the paper is organized into the
following parts: (1) BBackground: what do we know
about public understanding of nanotechnology?^ sum-
marizes the main findings regarding public attitudes and
perceptions necessary to understand how the problem of
nanotechnology communication is discussed; (2) BThe
problem of communicating nanotechnology to the
public^ addresses problems and obstacles identified in
the reviewed literature (this section explicitly addresses
communication problems, categorizing them so that the
problems can be juxtaposed to the proposed solutions in
the next section); (3) BSolutions for the communication
of nanotechnology to the public^ offers solutions and
recommendations identified in the reviewed literature
for the successful communication of nanotechnology;
(4) BDiscussion^ treats these findings in relation to the
research field; and (5) BConclusions^ wraps up the
review and suggests ways forward.

Background: what do we know about public
understanding of nanotechnology?

This section summarizes social science findings essen-
tial to communicating nanotechnology to the public. In
this section, the lessons from previous research are
divided into the following themes: (i) public knowledge
and attitudes and (ii) factors explaining public attitudes.
The reviewed studies were carried out in different coun-
tries using different methodologies; while most used
surveys and quantitative analysis, others relied on qual-
itative methods, such as interviews or focus groups.
There are differences in theoretical and analytical frame-
work for the studies, and their research designs differ,
including case studies, experimental, cross-sectional,
and even longitudinal research designs. The results are
therefore not immediately comparable (Ronteltap et al.
2011). Our aim with the review was not to evaluate or

discuss why there are differences between studies.
Differences in findings can be explained by a number
of factors: theoretical assumptions, hypothesis, and re-
search design, of data collection and analysis, concep-
tual differences (Ronteltap et al. 2011), for example, in
how trust is defined and operationalized. Sample char-
acteristics also differ a lot. Studies are done on public
understanding in different countries, with different reg-
ulatory frameworks, and with considerable institutional
and cultural differences. These differences also explain
diverging findings. Our objective was to identify com-
mon main findings regarding public understanding of
nanotechnology, since such findings serve as a reference
point for formulations of problems and solutions in the
investigated sample of papers.

Public knowledge, attitude, interest, and engagement

Many studies have noted that the public lacks knowl-
edge of nanotechnology and is unfamiliar with its basic
concepts and principles (Castellini et al. 2007; Delgado
et al. 2011; Larsson and Boholm 2018; Lin et al. 2013;
Macoubrie 2006; Retzbach et al. 2011; Vandermoere
et al. 2010). Although there are some national varia-
tions, studies in a number of countries confirm this
result. One of the first studies of public attitudes toward
nanotechnology (Bainbridge 2002) found that the public
had a high level of enthusiasm for the benefits of nano-
technology and little concern over risks, and later stud-
ies have confirmed this result, demonstrating that nano-
technology is perceived by the public as beneficial and
not associated with risk (Cobb and Macoubrie 2004;
Duncan 2011). Other studies have found that a consid-
erable portion of the public is indifferent toward nano-
technology (Vandermoere et al. 2010). Another often-
noted finding is that the public is not homogeneous
(Kim et al. 2014: 967), but consists of many groups
and segments with different outlooks, values, and ap-
proaches to new technology (Cormick and Hunter 2014;
Duncan 2011).

Nanotechnology is generally not an issue that spurs
public engagement. Only a minority of citizens takes an
active interest in nanotechnology and how it should be
governed in society (Priest et al. 2011: 1731). When
they are concerned, members of the public are worried
about the societal implications of nanotechnology use,
its environmental effects (Conti et al. 2011), and wheth-
er its benefits will be fairly distributed (McComas and
Besley 2011). There are some concerns about how

86 Page 4 of 21 J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86

nanotechnology products might affect society in the
future, as well as whether or not nanotechnology will
contribute to social and environmental sustainability
(Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007: 204–5). In general,
the public does not have stable preformed attitudes on
the subject of nanotechnology; rather, their attitudes are
prone to fluctuate depending on how the media frames
nanotechnology, current societal discussions of emerg-
ing applications, and their understanding of the benefits,
risks, and possible ethical concerns (Satterfield et al.
2009, 2012).

A growing number of studies addresses public attitudes
toward various applications of nanotechnology. Risks and
benefits are assessed differently depending on the area of
application (Pidgeon et al. 2009; Siegrist 2010). That
attitudes differ a lot depending on the area of application
is clear from many studies (Cacciatore et al. 2011;
Cormick 2009; Gupta et al. 2012, 2015; Larsson and
Boholm 2018; Pidgeon et al. 2009; Siegrist et al. 2007).
For example, people are more favorable toward nanotech-
nology applications to remedy water quality, nanotechnol-
ogy developments in medicine, and nanotechnology ad-
dressing problems in developing countries (Macoubrie
2006: 237). Applications such as cosmetics, on the other
hand, are regarded as poorly justified and are generally not
approved (Larsson and Boholm 2018; Macoubrie 2006:
236). The public has been found to be skeptical or doubtful
toward nanotechnology in the food sector (Bostrom and
Löfstedt 2010: 1658; Duncan 2011; Siegrist et al. 2007;
Vandermoere et al. 2011).

Several studies focus on public views of the labeling
of nanoproducts, which is understood to be an important
regulatory tool tomanage consumer products containing
nanomaterials (Siegrist 2010). Labeling is therefore ex-
pected to have an important role in risk communication
in the field of nanotechnology (Brown and Kuzma
2013). The public is favorable toward the labeling of
nanotechnology used in food. They want labeling for all
types of food and are also willing to pay for this, since
they believe that labeling facilitates informed decisions
related to risk management. Consumers also believe that
they have a right to be informed (Brown and Kuzma
2013; Yue et al. 2015).

Factors explaining public attitudes toward
and perception of nanotechnology

Many studies have explored the underlying causes of
public attitudes toward and perceptions of nanotechnology,

demonstrating that many interacting explanatory variables
are involved (Pillai and Bezbaruah 2017). In a meta-
analysis of the perceived risk of nanotechnologies,
Satterfield et al. (2009) concluded that public perception
is influenced by a considerable number of variables, such
as framing effects, media exposure, trust in regulation,
popular understanding of toxicity, attitudes toward envi-
ronmental risks, the perceived naturalness of nanotechnol-
ogy, psychometric variables, cultural bias, and religiosity,
as well as income and education. In a review of public
perception studies of nanotechnology, Siegrist (2010) iden-
tified values, trust, and worldview as key explanatory
factors shaping views of nanotechnology.

Trust in and respect for science have been shown to
be particularly important as an explanation for public
attitudes toward nanotechnology (Ho et al. 2010). Many
studies suggest that public opinion on nanotechnology
is guided by general attitudes toward science and tech-
nology, and that broad ideas about the value and use of
technology in society guide the formation of attitudes
toward nanotechnology (Priest 2009; Priest et al. 2011:
1721). Very few people have personal experience of and
familiarity with nanotechnology, an advanced broad
transdisciplinary natural science field that is difficult
for non-specialists to comprehend. Therefore, it makes
sense that deference to scientific authority (Ho et al.
2010), interest and trust in science, and a general belief
that scientific knowledge is beneficial all influence atti-
tudes toward nanotechnology (Retzbach et al. 2011).

Another dimension attracting interest in several stud-
ies is the relationship between support of nanotechnol-
ogy and knowledge of nanotechnology. Knowledge of
nanotechnology generally increases acceptance, but on-
ly slightly (Priest 2009: 763; Siegrist 2010: 840). When
people who state that they know little are exposed to
information about nanotechnology, they do not automat-
ically become more supportive (Anderson et al. 2014:
376). Why, then, is knowledge a weak predictor of
attitudes toward risk when knowledge generally makes
the public more confident in new technology? It has
been argued that nanotechnology actualizes many ethi-
cal issues and dilemmas that do not go away or diminish
with increasing knowledge of the technology (Pidgeon
et al. 2011: 1697). Nanotechnology is also ambiguous
due to its many areas of application, huge complexity,
and broad scope of use (Renn and Roco 2006).

Values predict attitudes toward nanotechnology
(Siegrist 2010). Religious belief has been shown to be
negatively correlated with support for nanotechnology

J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86 Page 5 of 21 86

(Ho et al. 2010). In another study, religiosity was found
to be negatively related to the perceived benefits of
nanotechnology (Cacciatore et al. 2011: 393). Other
studies, however, do not find religiosity and ideology
to be related to the perceived risk of nanotechnology
(Anderson et al. 2014: 383). While risk perception has
been shown to be gendered for other risk issues
(Finucane et al. 2000), research on public attitudes to-
ward nanotechnology has mixed findings. Some studies
provide evidence that gender to some extent explains
attitudes toward, or acceptance of, nanotechnology
(Bainbridge 2002: 569; Satterfield et al. 2009: 756),
while other studies find no gender effects (Macoubrie
2006: 236).

Studies have shown that public attitudes toward
nanotechnology are affected more strongly by informa-
tion on risks than on benefits (Satterfield et al. 2012:
257). In some studies, perceptions of the risks and
benefits of nanotechnology seem to be related, with
higher perceived risks reducing the perceived benefits
(Cacciatore et al. 2011: 396). Attitudes toward nano-
technology are unstable and can change rapidly depend-
ing on new information and how it is presented
(Satterfield et al. 2012). Due to the great uncertainty
regarding nanotechnology and its potential implications,
public attitudes and perceptions are more unstable than
they are regarding other more traditional technological
risk issues (e.g., chemical risks, radiation, nuclear pow-
er, and nuclear waste). One interesting finding is
that women have less fixed and stable attitudes
toward nanotechnology than do men, which might
indicate that gender has higher explanatory power for
new and less well-known technologies (Satterfield et al.
2012: 257).

Another factor influencing public opinion is media
representations. It is generally agreed in the literature on
public perceptions of nanotechnology that the mass
media constitute a key factor influencing these attitudes
(Scheufele and Lewenstein 2005). It was argued early
on in the nanotechnology debate that the public often
forms opinions on complex topics of which they have
little knowledge and for which they lack relevant infor-
mation based on the material provided by the mass
media (Scheufele and Lewenstein 2005). How informa-
tion is framed therefore influences risk perceptions of
nanotechnology, so that risks are perceived differently
depending on the social context of the information pre-
sented (Schütz and Wiedemann 2008: 377). Risk per-
ception is influenced by what information is provided

and opinions also change depending on information
(Smith et al. 2008).

Studies have demonstrated that media use correlates
positively with nanotechnology support (Ho et al. 2010)
and that attention to science news correlates with sup-
port for nanotechnology (Cacciatore et al. 2011: 393).
Themedia generally emphasize benefits over risks when
reporting on nanotechnology (Anderson et al. 2009;
Fitzgerald and Rubin 2010; Lewenstein et al. 2005;
Kjølberg 2009; Metag and Marcinkowski 2014), al-
though some studies note ambiguous representations
and frequent associations with risk (Anderson et al.
2005, 2009; Boholm and Boholm 2012; Friedman and
Egolf 2011; Laing 2005; Weaver et al. 2009). However,
exposure to information does not have a uniformly
positive effect on attitudes toward nanotechnology (Ho
et al. 2010: 2711). The public perceives scientific un-
certainty expressed in the media differently depending
on their level of trust in and deference to science author-
ity (Binder et al. 2016). Consequently, representations
of science in the media are not necessarily directly
linked to public risk perception of new technologies
(Binder et al. 2016).

The problem of communicating nanotechnology
to the public

That communication with the public on nanotechnology
is a delicate matter has been an underlying assumption
in the field since its inception. Several challenges for the
public communication of nanotechnology have been
identified, problems relating to some of the issues
discussed above. In this section, we dissect identified
problems explicitly noted as challenges in communicat-
ing nanotechnology to the public. These problems can
be sorted according to basic problem definitions de-
pending on how the sources of the problems are identi-
fied. Analytically, three main problem themes are dis-
tinguished: the public, societal organizations, and nano-
technology itself.

The public is a problem

The reviewed literature presents the public as a problem
for the communication of nanotechnology in ways that
can be categorized into three themes: (i) deficits (i.e.,
lack of knowledge, interest, and engagement), (ii)

86 Page 6 of 21 J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86

heterogeneity, and (iii) attitudes influenced by values
and emotions.

(i) Deficits (lack of knowledge, interest, and engage-
ment)

Lack of knowledge and engagement among the
public is understood as a problem for nanotechnol-
ogy communication because it might make infor-
mation difficult for the public to comprehend, in
turn making it difficult to interest the public in the
information provided. As discussed in the section
on background, regarding nanotechnology, the
public arguably has poor knowledge, is unfamiliar
with the technology, harbors misconceptions, and
has difficulties understanding central concepts
(Castellini et al. 2007: 187; Duncan 2011;
Macnaghten 2010: 24; Pidgeon and Rogers-
Hayden 2007; Schütz and Wiedemann 2008;
Simons et al. 2009: 1596). They also lack engage-
ment and interest (Petersen et al. 2007), making it
difficult to reach out or involve the public in delib-
erative approaches.

(ii) The public is heterogeneous
A heterogeneous public constitutes a problem for

nanotechnology communication because the level
of knowledge and understandingwill differ between
subpopulations in society, making it difficult to
develop communication strategies. As discussed in
the above BBackground: what do we know about
public understanding of nanotechnology^ section,
the public is indeed heterogeneous and diverse
(Duncan 2011: 685; Kim et al. 2014), and research
has demonstrated that there are many different po-
sitions for or against nanotechnology for many dif-
ferent reasons (Priest 2006). The public is segment-
ed into sets of beliefs and worldviews and has
different attitudes accordingly (Cormick and
Hunter 2014). As discussed in the BBackground:
what do we know about public understanding of
nanotechnology^ section, factors such as religiosity
and gender affect perception and might have impli-
cations for how information is understood; more-
over, cultural cognition and group values influence
how people interpret nanotechnology-related infor-
mation (Kahan 2010; Kahan et al. 2009).

(iii) The public relies on values and emotions
Values, beliefs, and emotions are understood to

influence attitudes toward nanotechnology
(Bostrom and Löfstedt 2010; Cormick and

Hunter 2014). The role of values and emotions is
identified as a problem theme, since it makes it
difficult to foresee how information will be under-
stood when attitudes are formed by values, feel-
ings, hopes, and expectations rather than on fac-
tual knowledge (Simons et al. 2009: 1596). People
may not believe in information and might reject
information that is not consistent with their values
and emotions (Simons et al. 2009: 1596).

Societal institutions are a problem

Another problem associated with communicating nano-
technology to the public is that societal institutions are
understood as obstacles to successful communication.
Societal institutions are seen as a problem for the following
reasons: (i) mass media influence attitudes; (ii) mass media
provide a fragmented picture of nanotechnology; (iii)
nanotechnology regulation is fragmented; and (iv) there
is lack of agreement on definitions and concepts.

(i) Mass media influence public attitudes
That mass media influence public attitudes is

considered a problem for science communication
because it skews public opinion and makes proper
science communication difficult. Mass media are
understood to influence public attitudes (Binder
et al. 2016: 832); howmedia frame nanotechnology
and the lack of reporting are understood to create a
problem for science communication. There is a
limited discussion of nanotechnology in the media
and, when there is, risk is attenuated, which con-
tributes to a lack of public interest and engagement
(Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007: 195; Priest
2009: 759).

(ii) Mass media representations are fragmented and
ambiguous

The media are understood to offer a fragmented
and ambiguous picture of nanotechnology, not
providing the public with adequate tools to make
informed decisions. This scattered picture, ambi-
guity, and uncertainty in the news media arguably
might pave the way for fear, contributing to public
resistance to nanotechnology (Allan et al. 2010:
42).

(iii) Policy and regulation are fragmented
Regulatory uncertainty and fragmentation argu-

ably make it difficult for the public to understand

J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86 Page 7 of 21 86

nanotechnology (Laux et al. 2018: 124), and conse-
quently more difficult to communicate about nano-
technology to the public (Priest 2009: 764). This
argument relates to the contemporary regulatory
situation with its patchwork of nano-specific and
non-nano-specific laws and regulations. Within the
EU, there is the regulation Registration, Evaluation,
Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals
(REACH), the EU Cosmetics Directive, and the
European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which
requires food labeling for nanomaterials (EC
2013). There are regulatory inconsistencies regard-
ing communication, since different legislationsmake
different demands: sometimeswarning labels, some-
times declarations of content, and sometimes public
hearings are required in environmental impact as-
sessment regulation (Priest 2009: 760).

(iv) Lack of consensus on definitions of concepts
A lack of standardized definitions and concepts

among the involved actors is also understood as a
problem when communicating nanotechnology to
the public. It has been argued that no standardized
framework is in place for categorizing nanotech-
nology and nanomaterials (Bostrom and Löfstedt
2010: 1652–3). Definitions of nanomaterials are
based on different criteria depending on the pur-
pose, varying among organizational, industry, reg-
ulatory, and research actors (Laux et al. 2018:
122–3). There is a broad range of definitions of
nanomaterial and nanoparticle, and there are dis-
agreements on what type of definition is the most
suitable (Boholm 2016; Boholm and Arvidsson
2016). The Black of a clear and shared understand-
ing of key terms^ is considered a problem for
science and regulation, since it allows ambiguity
and vagueness as well as conflicting messages
(Boholm and Arvidsson 2016: 38).

Nanotechnology itself is a problem

It has been argued that the qualities (or lack thereof)
associated with the physical and material properties of
nanotechnology create challenges for communication
for the following reasons: (i) these qualities give rise to
low dread risk; (ii) they concern matter that is difficult to
describe and visualize; (iii) there are many diverse ap-
plications and areas of use; and (iv) they are character-
ized by epistemic uncertainty.

(i) Absence of dread risk
Due to its material features, nanotechnology is

not perceived as a high-consequence, low-
probability risk, associated with involuntariness,
dread, and lack of control (Renn and Benighaus
2013: 305–6), and it therefore fits poorly into tra-
ditional risk communication frameworks. Dread
risk is a concept from psychometric studies of risk
perception and pertains to risks perceived as uncon-
trollable, global, and catastrophic; having fatal con-
sequences; inequitable; posing a high risk to future
generations; not easily reduced; and increasing and
involuntary (Slovic 1987: 282). Risk issues associ-
ated with the highest dread factor in early psycho-
metric research were nuclear war, nuclear weapons,
and nuclear reactor accidents (Slovic 1987).
Nanotechnology scores low on the dread risk factor
and is therefore considered a problem for risk com-
munication due to an inability to attract necessary
public attention and to communicate through rec-
ognizable risk scenarios (Renn and Benighaus
2013).

(ii)

Beyond perception

Nanomaterials exist in a size range invisible to

the naked eye and are not easily described to
laypeople. It is therefore argued that, in the eyes
of the public, nanotechnology is distant, unfamil-
iar, and intangible (Castellini et al. 2007: 187;
Macnaghten 2010: 23; Pidgeon et al. 2011: 1695;
Priest 2012: 22–3; Simons et al. 2009).
Nanotechnology also arguably has uncanny asso-
ciations, since it deals with matter that is
Bunbelievably small^ and therefore Butterly be-
yond human action, perception and control^
(Macnaghten 2010: 24–5). Communicating with
the public about uncanny matter beyond percep-
tion is therefore understood to be challenging.

(iii) Applications are diverse
The diversity of nanotechnology applications

is understood to create a problem for nanotech-
nology communication. Nanotechnology includes
many diverse areas, heterogeneous substances,
techniques, applications, industry branches, and
risk issues. Public acceptance also differs between
particular applications, qualities, and potential
hazards (Duncan 2011; Macnaghten 2010: 24;
Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007: 197; Pidgeon
et al. 2011: 1695). As noted in the above
BBackground: what do we know about public

86 Page 8 of 21 J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86

understanding of nanotechnology^ section, public
acceptance of nanotechnology depends on its ap-
plication (Berube et al. 2011; Simons et al. 2009),
and the perceived risk and benefit profiles of
different applications differ greatly.

(iv)

Epistemic uncertainty

Nanotechnology is surrounded by considerable

uncertainty regarding its nature, benefits, environ-
mental risks, human health effects, and safety
(Berube et al. 2011: 3097; Grieger et al. 2009).
Uncertainty is arguably due to both the complex-
ity of nanomaterials as such and to their future
implications and consequences (Subramanian
et al. 2014). Consequently, many uncertain param-
eters must be communicated in policy and regula-
tory work on nanotechnology (Williams et al.
2010). It is argued that communicating with the
public about uncertain hopes and fears is much
more difficult than is communicating established
and known facts (Shatkin et al. 2010). For exam-
ple, the public wants to know if there actually are
nanoparticles in their food and, if so, whether or
not this is a health risk; such questions pose a
communication problem when science cannot
provide clear-cut answers (Bostrom and Löfstedt
2010: 1658).

Solutions for the communication of nanotechnology
to the public

In what follows, we will look more closely at specific
problem solutions found in the reviewed literature and
discuss to what extent they correspond to the problems
identified and presented above.

Solutions if the public is seen as the problem.

As we have seen, the public is construed as a problem
due to: (i) deficits (i.e., lack of knowledge, interest, trust,
and engagement), (ii) heterogeneity, and (iii) attitudes
influenced by values and emotions. Solutions involving
the public are suggested in the following areas: (i) public
education, (ii) academic research on public attitudes/
understanding, (iii) targeted communication, (iv) dialog
and participation, and (v) trust and transparency build-
ing. The first suggested solution (i) directly addresses
the problem of the public knowledge deficit, while the

next two (ii) and (iii) suggest that communication must
develop from the current state of affairs and that it can be
improved through better knowledge of the target audi-
ence; therefore, the first three solutions correspond to
defined problems, although indirectly. The solution
themes of dialog and participation (iv) and trust and
transparency building (v), however, have no clear cor-
respondence to any problem formulations. No problem
constructions explicitly point to lack of dialog and par-
ticipation or lack of trust and transparency as such.
These solutions appear to be generally assumed to be
good ways to move forward when it comes to commu-
nicating nanotechnology to the public. These solutions
can be understood as legacies from the upstream en-
gagement literature in the field of the public understand-
ing of science and from parts of the risk communication
literature that emphasize trust and transparency as key
parameters of effective risk communication (Priest
2012: 81). This matter will be addressed more thorough-
ly in the BDiscussion^ section.

(i) Educate the public
From the conception that the public has a low

level of knowledge, making communication prob-
lematic, it has been argued that education must be
part of any successful communication strategy.
People’s knowledge and capacity for critical rea-
soning must be improved (Wiedemann et al. 2011:
1781). Gardner et al. (2010) suggested that educa-
tional programs to improve Brisk literacy^ in the
public should be developed (p. 1965); they recom-
mended that risk should be introduced as a topic in
science education, so that students can learn to
employ tools to Bcritically construct well-formed
attitudes and perceptions regarding complex
topics^ (p. 1965). Risk literacy applied to nanotech-
nology, it is argued, should engender the under-
standing that nanotechnology is heterogeneous
and includes many applications that can have spe-
cific controversial aspects.

It is suggested that education might be accom-
plished through the development and use of
Bevidence maps.^ Evidence maps consist of sys-
tematic characterizations and presentations of argu-
ments in a risk debate, and when used to commu-
nicate risk assessments, they stimulate a scientific
and logical way of reasoning about particular risk
issues (Wiedemann et al. 2011). Evidence maps
help present complex information in a coherent

J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86 Page 9 of 21 86

and pedagogical way. Their use arguably has the
potential to resolve conflicts over risk issues, nar-
ratives, or arguments in a debate by characterizing
and presenting arguments in a systematic way. This
pedagogical and communicative tool is intended to
help stakeholders and decision makers’ structure
information in ways that are more easily accessible
to the public.

However, other voices warn of an overreliance
on public education to overcome the difficulty of
communicating nanotechnology to the public.
According to Kim et al. (2014: 967), a communi-
cation strategy that has as its main goal educating
the public by providing accurate information can-
not be expected to create consensus on a risk issue
or to lower risk perceptions. This is because
attitudes toward nanotechnology depend on
values, beliefs, and worldviews rather than on
facts. Values are stable and resilient to new
information or scientific facts, because factual
information provided might not align with
conceptual frames among members of the pub-
lic.

One aspect of communicating nanotechnol-
ogy to the public that has received a fair
amount of attention in the literature is the
labeling of nanotechnology products and
nanomaterials. This growing body of literature
is extensive and cannot be reviewed here due
to the limited scope of this paper. However,
we should note that labeling is understood as
an important risk communication strategy for
nanotechnology (Siegrist 2010: 843). It is also
argued that more research is needed on how
labeling and the information provided on la-
bels influence the perception of nanotechnolo-
gy products (Siegrist 2010). Brown and
Kuzma (2013: 534) suggested that simply pro-
viding information on product labels alone
will not be a sufficient public communication
measure. They argue that education and infor-
mation on nanotechnology in addition to label-
ing are also important. They furthermore rec-
ommend that government agencies actively en-
gage in public outreach and education on
nanotechnology and point out that consumers
need education about how to use information
on labels to make informed decisions (Brown
and Kuzma 2013). There are also concerns

that mandatory labeling could result in a lack
of public support for nanotechnology, since
this tool could be understood as signaling that
significant risks are indeed involved (Siegrist
et al. 2007: 463).

(ii) Academic research on public understanding
As a way of improving communication strate-

gies, it has been argued that more research on
public understanding is needed in order to learn
what influences public opinions. The advocates
have identified various knowledge gaps in the
academic study of public attitudes toward nano-
technology that are relevant to communication.
Macoubrie (2006: 222) argued that communica-
tion with the public on nanotechnology depends
on in-depth knowledge not only of attitudes but
also of their underlying drivers, i.e., laypeople’s
assumptions and premises. Priest (2009: 765) ar-
gued that more knowledge is needed of how dif-
ferent communication models work, and of what
roles, goals, and objectives they entail. One area
where more knowledge is needed that has been
identified as particularly relevant to the communi-
cation of nanotechnology concerns how the public
forms perceptions of benefits. Risk perception is a
well-researched area, but the perception of benefits
is less so (Satterfield et al. 2012: 257).

It has also been argued that it is important to
understand under what circumstances perceptions
might change (Satterfield et al. 2012: 257). It has
been suggested that the mental models framework
(Morgan et al. 2002) would be useful since it
focuses on how members of the public cognitively
construe risk from assumed causal mechanisms
(Bostrom and Löfstedt 2010: 1657). However,
others have questioned the relevance of the mental
models approach, since nanotechnology has a
somewhat different dynamic from those of several
other risk issues for which traditional risk commu-
nication (and the mental models approach) was
developed (Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007:
203).

Because the media are known to influence pub-
lic opinion, it has been argued that we need a better
understanding of how the media, including new
media, work (Duncan 2011). Attention should be
paid to new developments in the media coverage
of nanotechnology to enable the Bmonitoring^ of
public opinion at different stages of the Bissue–

86 Page 10 of 21 J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86

attention cycle^ (Ho et al. 2010: 2711). It has been
argued that more knowledge is needed of how
changes in media coverage (which might be sud-
den and drastic) affect public perception
(Scheufele and Lewenstein 2005: 665).

(iii) Develop targeted audience-specific communica-
tion

When considering solutions, the focus is on
targeted communication based on an understand-
ing that the public is fragmented and that different
audiences respond to information in different
ways. Targeted nanotechnology communication
is tailored to the understandings, values, needs,
and knowledge of particular groups, with the aim
of helping them understand nanotechnology and
gain the tools needed to make well-balanced de-
cisions for themselves (Duncan 2011; Ho et al.
2010: 2710–1; Pillai and Bezbaruah 2017: 41;
Yue et al. 2015). Targeted communication is un-
derstood by its advocates as helping empower the
public by providing information, so that members
of the public might become informed despite their
knowledge limitations (Simons et al. 2009: 1596).
A key message in this line of thought is that the
public cannot be treated as a single homogeneous
mass expected to respond uniformly to science
communication.

The core message from this perspective is that
the public consists of various audiences differing
in ethnicity, race, language, religion, and so on.
Specific audiences should therefore be identified
and addressed separately as distinct Binterpretative
communities,^ as there is no such thing as Bone
size fits all^ in communication (Priest 2009: 764).
In the same vein, Kahan (2010: 297) argued that
information about nanotechnology should be pre-
sented so that it is Bagreeable to culturally diverse
groups.^ Kim et al. (2014: 978) recommended
that risks and benefits be addressed in special
communication campaigns tailored to the audi-
ences’ particular cognitive styles. For people
who process information systematically, more
information should be provided, and for
those who rely on heuristics, communication
should take account of values (Kim et al.
2014: 978). Following this line of reasoning,
Ho et al. (2010: 2710–1) suggested forming
partnerships with religious institutions to
reach religious segments of the public.

(iv) Develop dialog and participation
Another solution is to develop initiatives and

strategies for involving the public in dialog and
policy processes (Sodano et al. 2016: 725;
Vandermoere et al. 2011: 204). Priest (2009) ar-
gued that opportunities should be made for public
discussion and education and for the public to give
opinion feedback to policymakers. A need has
been identified for Boutreach efforts on meaning-
ful public engagement and dialogue that builds
relationships among risk managers and the public,
rather than one-sided efforts designed to educate
and inform the public^ (McComas and Besley
2011: 1758–9).

These deliberative approaches, it is argued,
should involve scientists, engineers, and laypeo-
ple (López-Vázquez et al. 2012: 203) as well as
the policy sector (Sodano et al. 2016: 725). Others
have argued that the industry must take more
responsibility for communication (especially in
the case of nanofood). In the nanofood sector, it
is recommended that the industry should use trade
associations as partners, collaborate with social
scientists, and promote public engagement
(Duncan 2011). A concrete suggestion is to facil-
itate Bgroup talk^ to critically engage with future-
oriented techno-scientific politics in which policy-
oriented critical social scientists have a distinct
role in developing dialog between the public, sci-
ence, and policy concerning new technology
(Macnaghten 2010: 32). However, it is also argued
that public participation must be structured so that
Bcultural polarization^ is avoided between differ-
ent groups (Kahan 2010: 297).

(v) Build transparency and trust
To engage the public, it has been argued that

trust must be established, and that transparency is a
good way of doing so. It is assumed that greater
trust and transparency will almost automatically
increase public acceptance of nanotechnology
(Vandermoere et al. 2011: 204). Siegrist (2010:
842) emphasized the need to induce high public
trust in government and regulation. It has also been
argued that new thinking about how to be proactive
and transparent in communication and that estab-
lishing new relationships with the public are
ways forward toward integrating and commu-
nicating research and risk assessment (Shatkin
et al. 2010: 1685).

J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86 Page 11 of 21 86

To build trust, it has been argued that it is
important to consider who should communi-
cate nanotechnology information to the public
and that already trusted institutions should be
involved (Simons et al. 2009: 1596–7). Capon
et al. (2015: 11) argued that risk communica-
tion is best undertaken by trusted scientists.
Ho et al. (2010: 2710) suggested that
policymakers should promote and instill trust
in scientists and deference to scientific authority
among the public, for example, by arranging for
Beminent scientists^ to hold seminars. Similarly,
Shatkin et al. (2010: 1685) recommended that an
independent and trusted Bentity^ should be
established for the purpose of managing and im-
proving science communication.

Solutions if societal organizations are seen
as the problem

We have seen that societal organizations are construed
as a problem for the communication of nanotechnology
for the following reasons: (i) the mass media influence
attitudes; (ii) the mass media provide a fragmented
picture of nanotechnology; (iii) policy and regulation
are fragmented; and (iv) there is a lack of consensus on
definitions and concepts. The proposed solutions to
these problems are the following: (i) media manage-
ment, (ii) strengthening policy and regulation, and (iii)
increasing clarity and consistency in communication.
These solutions correspond to the problem construc-
tions, by trying to eliminate what are considered obsta-
cles in society to the successful communication of
nanotechnology.

(i)

Media management

Managing the media in various ways is a com-

mon suggestion for improving nanotechnology
communication from the perspective of the scien-
tific community. A practical suggestion for
connecting the media more closely to science is
that a science media center could be set up to serve
as an Bindependent agenda-free organization for
evidence-based science^ (Duncan 2011: 688). It
has also been argued that risk communication
should preferably be in place before any negative
events are reported in the news media (Simons et al.
2009: 1596), so those concerned can be prepared to

address any event or public scandal. To achieve
stronger public engagement, it has been recom-
mended that new media and peer-to-peer commu-
nication be utilized (Bostrom and Löfstedt 2010:
1657). Ho et al. (2010: 2711) recommended that
public officials should use the mass media to run
campaigns, and should sponsor science programs
on public broadcasting channels to offer accurate
and up-to-date nanotechnology information to the
public.

(ii) Strengthening policy and regulation
As communication is understood to be hindered

or made more difficult by policy and regulation
fragmentation, one solution is regulatory change.
Government regulatory bodies, it is argued, must
ensure compliance with guidelines in order to ef-
fectively manage toxicity and safety, in order to
maintain public trust (Ho et al. 2010: 2710). Major
public investment in risk research, early warning
systems and monitoring, stringent pre-market au-
thorization, mandatory labeling, and establishment
of a public register of products and producers have
also been recommended (Sodano et al. 2016: 725).

(iii) Increase clarity and consistency in communication
To improve communication regarding nanotech-

nology, it has been argued that communication must
be clear and consistent (Shatkin et al. 2010: 1685).
Communication should address terminology issues
as well as ensure clarity, consistency, and parsimony
in communication (Shatkin et al. 2010: 1686).
Boholm and Arvidsson (2016) suggested that the
terms nanoparticle and nanomaterials should be de-
fined and used consistently, given a particular pur-
pose, to serve as the basis for a shared understanding
among relevant regulators and parties. Another rec-
ommendation is that the Bexact method and
phrasing^ of messages must be carefully considered
(Smith et al. 2008: 471–2). Reisch et al. (2011: 650)
recommended that the Blatest research on the poten-
tials and risks of nanoproducts and nanomaterials
should be translated into an easily understandable
format^ to be disseminated to consumers.

Although there are calls for more clarity in the
messages communicated to the public, there is a
striking disagreement on how messages should be
formulated and what should be emphasized. Some
believe that the benefits of nanotechnology should
be highlighted in a balanced way to promote public
acceptance of nanotechnology (Kim et al. 2014:

86 Page 12 of 21 J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86

977). Steenis and Fischer (2016: 1262) suggested
that communicating the personal benefits of nano-
technology in food will be a key element in building
acceptance. They also suggested that more attention
should be paid to identifying and communicating the
concrete benefits of nanotechnology to actual con-
sumers (Steenis and Fischer 2016: 1264). Sodano
et al. (2016: 7249) have generally recommended that
policymakers should engage in communication
aimed at increasing public acceptance by conveying
information about benefits and Burging greater trust
in industry and science.^

However, it is also argued that if nanotechnology
benefits are overemphasized, the public might have
problems accepting nanotechnology if disturbing
news about hazards emerges in the future. Risk must
therefore be addressed in order to keep the public
prepared for negative information (Satterfield et al.
2012: 258). Experts have an important role as com-
municators and should Bdemonstrate their willing-
ness to speak candidly about potential risks^
(McComas and Besley 2011: 1759). Sodano et al.
(2016: 725) recommended against policymakers
communicating policies with the sole aim of
attempting to increase public acceptance; they
should instead address risks associated with nano-
technology. Science-based information that is open
and balanced is understood to be an important tool
helping the public form well-grounded opinions
(Cobb and Macoubrie 2004: 404).

Solution if nanotechnology itself is seen as the problem

As seen above, the physical properties of nanotechnol-
ogy (and the associations evoked) have been identified
as a problem for communication for several reasons: (i)
they give rise to low dread risk; (ii) they concern small
and difficult to perceive properties of matter; (iii) they
relate to many different applications and areas of use;
and (iv) they are associated with epistemic uncertainty.
The suggested solution addressing nanotechnology it-
self as a problem is to improve our knowledge of nano-
technology, a solution intended to reduce the epistemic
uncertainty associated with nanotechnology. Problems
(i)–(iii), however, although understood as problems for
the communication of nanotechnology to the public,
lack any suggested solutions.

(i) Improve knowledge of nanotechnology
It has been suggested that nanotechnology risk

assessment and lifecycle assessment should be
advanced in order to improve the quality and
accuracy of risk communication. Laux et al.
(2018) proposed that nanomaterials must be char-
acterized and understood during different lifecycle
stages; they also argued that the risk assessment of
nanomaterials must be developed, since knowledge
derived from risk assessment is the fundamental
content to communicate to the public. Similarly,
Pidgeon et al. (2011: 1696) noted a need for more
Bsophisticated quantitative studies^ of the risk of
nanomaterials in order to improve communication
with the general public.

Discussion

This review of the scholarly debate on nanotechnology
communication and the public has identified problem
definitions as well as solutions for communicating with,
and involving, the public. An overview of the field
reveals that there is congruence between problem con-
structions and solutions for some topics, but not others.
There are systematic overlaps, but also some striking
decoupling between problem definitions and recom-
mended solutions for policy and practice. An overview
of problem formulations and solutions is provided in
Table 1.

In this section, we will discuss problem definitions
and solutions in relation to the research field producing
these problem definitions and suggested solutions.

One important reason for the lack of congruence
regarding problem formulations and suggested solutions
is that there is no consensus as to the goals of commu-
nicating nanotechnology to the public. The rationale for
such communication stems from underlying normative
ideals rather than from a need to address certain identi-
fied problems. There is an underlying, deeper identifi-
cation and conceptualization of a problem about the role
of citizens in society in relation to new technology. This
underlying problem formulation addresses the need for
communication with citizens about emerging technolo-
gy and is part and parcel of the ideals of responsible
innovation intimately linked to the development of
nanotechnology in the US and the EU.

J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86 Page 13 of 21 86

A normative position often assumed in the literature
is that communication on nanotechnology should pro-
mote empowerment and reflexivity among the public to
Bencourage deeper thought about issues that might oth-
erwise be ignored^ (Priest 2009: 762), and that commu-
nication should Bempower people to participate in mak-
ing decisions that reflect their own values rather than
(necessarily) the values of the technology promoters or
detractors.^ What is called Bupstream engagement^ in
the literature on the public understanding of science
strives to promote civil society–science policy dialog
in which the public is included in decision-making on
technology (Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007: 192;
Pidgeon et al. 2017). Upstream engagement to involve
the public is understood to enhance the legitimacy of
new technology (Priest 2009: 760).

The normative stance implies that policymakers must
try to Bintegrate the public’s views into risk decision
making^ (McComas and Besley 2011: 1750). It is rec-
ommended that a collaborative problem-solving ap-
proach should be used in nanotechnology policy to
identify issues of concern among the public
(Macoubrie 2006: 222). This perspective on the

communication of nanotechnology is understood to be
essential to empower people in decision-making
concerning nanotechnology (Simons et al. 2009). It is
advocated that this communication with the public
should be two-way communication or dialog (Pidgeon
and Rogers-Hayden 2007: 193; Priest 2009; Toumey
2013: 226); that openness and transparency about un-
certainties should guide the regulation and management
of risks (Priest 2009); and that transparency should be
seen as crucial to creating public trust (Priest 2009: 760).
According to the norms of upstream engagement,
solutions emphasize participation, dialog, transpar-
ency, and other modes of motivating the public to
engage in discussions and decision-making regard-
ing nanotechnology.

Another stance is the Bdeficit model^ of the public
understanding of nanotechnology (Rogers-Hayden and
Pidgeon 2007; Priest 2012: 26). This model identifies
elements lacking among the public, elements under-
stood to be crucial to communication, such as knowl-
edge (the public has poor knowledge), trust (the public
mistrusts regulators, policymakers, scientists, and/or the
technology), and engagement (the public is not

Table 1 Overview of problems
and solutions to communicating
nanotechnology to the public

Problem Solution

The public

Deficits of knowledge, interest,
and engagement

Education

Dialog and participation

Heterogeneous Targeted audience-specific communication

Values and emotions Dialog and participation

Academic research

Transparency and trust

Societal institutions

Mass media influence public attitudes Media management

Fragmented and ambiguous mass
media representations

Media management

Fragmented policy and regulation Strengthen policy and regulation

Lack of consensus on concepts Clarity and consistency in communication

Nanotechnology itself

No dread risk

Beyond perception

Diverse applications

Epistemic uncertainty

Improve knowledge of nanotechnology particularly
risk assessment an life cycle analysis

86 Page 14 of 21 J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86

interested and does not care) (Rogers-Hayden and
Pidgeon 2007). If the public is understood to lack proper
knowledge of nanotechnology, a main communication
goal will be to educate and inform the public. From this
perspective, communication should provide information
to educate the public about nanotechnology, the under-
lying science, and the actual associated risks and bene-
fits (Delgado et al. 2011). If communicative actions to
address deficits in knowledge (more education) or def-
icits in trust (more transparency) are successful, it is
assumed that public acceptance of nanotechnology will
increase (Ebbesen 2008). There is a certain overlap in
the two positions when it comes to building public trust.
If the public is understood to lack trust and engagement,
a main communicative goal will be to engage through
participation and various efforts to create dialog (Rowe
and Frewer 2000).

The different problems and solutions identified in the
reviewed literature should be understood in relation to
different overarching ideas about public upstream en-
gagement, and about knowledge and/or trust deficits.
These ideas are related to two partly overlapping inter-
disciplinary social science research fields: risk commu-
nication, which is part of risk research, and science
communication, which is part of science and technology
studies (Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007; Priest 2009;
Renn and Benighaus 2013). Scholars from the risk
communication field tend to focus on providing correct,
factual information on risk issues, correcting misunder-
standings and false beliefs, influencing and correcting
lay mental models of the causes and effects of a risk
issue, and raising awareness of scientific knowledge
(Shatkin et al. 2010). Scholars from science and tech-
nology studies, on the other hand, emphasize more
broadly the role of technology in society: how technol-
ogy is organized and institutionalized and how actors
engage in technology, as well as what power relations,
meaning systems, ideological frames, and norms sur-
round technology as a social phenomenon (Pidgeon and
Rogers-Hayden 2007).

The fundamental challenges acknowledged in both
fields are basically the same: how to stimulate debate
when the topic is not prominent in society? How to
create engagement when the public is not interested?
How to disseminate knowledge of an issue that does not
engage people? How to create engaged citizens with an
interest in science and innovation? How to disseminate
knowledge when there is a lack of engagement and
interest? (Petersen et al. 2007). The communication of

nanotechnology can be understood as a paradox: there
are norms of science participation and the scientification
of public knowledge, on one hand, and a lack of public
interest and capacity to participate, on the other (Binder
et al. 2016: p. 831). The paradox in play is that upstream
engagement initiatives even might create an awareness
of risk, socially amplifying the perceived risks of nano-
technology among the public (Pidgeon et al. 2011:
1696).

The findings of this review of the literature on com-
municating nanotechnology to the public support
the findings of another literature review on re-
search into Bsocietal responses^ to nanotechnology.
Ronteltap et al. (2011) reviewed 107 papers pub-
lished between 2002 and 2010 with the aim of
identifying overarching frameworks and common
problem formulations. They found that the field
is heterogeneous and fragmented, lacks uniform
research problems and problem definitions, and
lacks a generally agreed-upon theoretical frame-
work as wel l as consis tent concepts and
terminology. There was a lack of collaboration
between natural and social sciences and it was
difficult to compare research and research
findings. Ronteltap et al. (2011) also noted a pleth-
ora of divergent problem formulations, solutions,
and recommendations for practice and policy
reflecting the orientations of diverse academic
fields, research paradigms, and ways of conducting
policy-relevant research. They concluded that the
fragmented problem definitions and suggested so-
lutions reflected a lack of cross-fertilization be-
tween subfields and disciplines. There is a lack
of agreement on the research problems, theoretical
framework, or even common goals and objectives.
Hence, it is difficult to extract viable lessons and
policy implications for reflexive innovation in the
field.

We have reached similar conclusions regarding the
construction of the field of research on nanotechnology
and communication with the public. However, we found
a broad consensus in the cited literature about a need for
communication with and/or involving the public as part
of the responsible innovation of nanotechnology.
However, there is little agreement on how exactly to
achieve this, or even why it is desirable. The reviewed
literature presents different problem formulations as well
as different solutions to achieve successful communica-
tion strategies. The solutions are sometimes decoupled

J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86 Page 15 of 21 86

from the problem definitions, and the problem definitions
and solutions are sometimes also decoupled from re-
search. One important reason for this is the normative
stance of public deliberation in relation to the responsible
innovation of nanotechnology. A lack of agreement on
theories and perspectives creates contradictions in the
debate on nanotechnology communication, and different
recommendations are based on divergent views of the
public, of the effects of interventions, and of the goals of
communication.

Conclusions

What lessons can be learned from the almost two-decade-
long debate on the communication of nanotechnology to
the public? Although the debate is fragmented and is
based on conflicting ideals that are difficult to balance,
the communication of nanotechnology is nevertheless
seen as an important issue in society. Successful science
communication is important for establishing trust in
science and the scientific community, as well as in other
societal organizations, and controversies surrounding
nanotechnology might seriously affect trust in society
more generally. Communication strategies and goals are
important, as communication done the wrong way very
well might lead to a backlash, and information intended
to soothe the public might instead stir up concern. As
Pidgeon et al. (2011) argued, it is paradoxical that up-
stream engagement initiatives might activate risk percep-
tions and contribute to the social amplification of nano-
technology as associated with risk (Pidgeon et al. 2011:
1696). From insights gained from the reviewed literature,
we wish to conclude by making some constructive

suggestions for nanotechnology communication. A sum-
mary of recommendations is presented in Table 2.

Define objectives of communication We suggest that the
reasons why nanotechnology should be communicated
to the public be identified and defined. Why is commu-
nication about nanomaterials important, and what do we
want to achieve through this communication? It is im-
portant to be specific and transparent about the general
objectives of communication and public involvement,
and to define the objectives of specific communication
initiatives and of initiatives intended to involve the
public in any deliberative approach. By addressing this
issue upfront, it is easier to avoid conflicting goals in
any communication strategy. Recognizing objectives is
an important step in designing and implementing com-
munication regimes for nanotechnology, with conse-
quences for who should communicate and whom should
be targeted.

Utilize previous research in a responsible way When
the rationale for communication is defined, it is possible
to systematically utilize previous research findings.
Although certain fundamental challenges with commu-
nicating nanotechnology are not easily resolved, public
attitudes and opinions and what might influence them
are relatively well researched. Taken together, we actu-
ally know quite a lot about public knowledge, public
attitudes, what influences public attitudes, and how
these attitudes can be expected to change due to differ-
ent circumstances. Relevant studies have treated differ-
ent groups in society, different countries, and conse-
quently different regulatory and societal contexts.
Considerable research has also examined media repre-
sentations and how media information influences public
attitudes and perceptions, research that can be utilized in
designing communication strategies.

While recognizing the importance of utilizing previ-
ous research on the public understanding of nanotech-
nology when designing successful communication strat-
egies, we also call for caution in how research is utilized
in formulating communication strategies. Individual
studies can be used, but analyses of metadata should
be employed to drawmore general conclusions. General
problem formulations and underlying assumptions need
to be considered. There is an immanent risk of making
recommendations for communication based on individ-
ual studies, when the body of literature in fact presents
contradictory results. The methodological, theoretical,

Table 2 Communication of nanotechnology to the public:
recommendations

1 Define objectives of communication: decide why to
communicate and what is to be communicated

2 Utilize previous research in a responsible way: research should
be systematically assessed, focus on metadata rather than
individual studies

3 Develop communication to match the context: be consistent
and focus on the message

4 Do not aspire for a generic framework for communication: take
into account application area, industry sector, regulation,
consumer interest, public perception, and acceptability

86 Page 16 of 21 J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86

and normative points of departure of the studies, as well
as their empirical scope, need to be recognized and
critically assessed by asking questions such as: what
conclusions can be drawn from the studies? Are the
results of a study in one country translatable to another?
Can we assume that the identified differences will re-
main stable over time?

Recommendations for targeted communication are
often stressed in survey studies identifying differences
between groups in society, implying that information
should be tailored to differences in knowledge and
cognitive style between audiences. Recommendations
for targeted communication are often a conclusion
drawn from the results of individual studies iden-
tifying statistically significant differences between
two groups (e.g., religious–non-religious, men–
women, and well educated–poorly educated). This
might seem a reasonable implication of such stud-
ies; however, differences between groups are often
small even though statistically significant, and sim-
ilarities might still be important. Furthermore, dif-
ferent studies report different results, for example,
with gender differences seeming to matter in some
studies, while others find no such differences.
Targeted communication might even polarize and
compromise the perceived integrity of societal or-
ganizations and the scientific community. Tailored
messages can be interpreted as conflicting infor-
mation or as attempts to manipulate, and as a
communication strategy might even cause a back-
lash. Therefore, targeted information should be
carefully tested and evaluated before being put
into practice.

Develop communication to match the context This
study has identified several not easily changed problems
relating to the communication of nanotechnology: the
qualities of nanoparticles, the fragmentation of current
regulation, media reporting, a lack of interest and en-
gagement among the public, and the fact that public
attitudes are influenced by beliefs, values, and
emotions rather than by factual knowledge. From
a communication perspective, these things are not
easily changed, and communication strategies
should instead be developed in relation to context.
The communication of nanotechnology to the pub-
lic cannot rely on changes in regulation, changes
in public interest or engagement, or changes in the
phy s i c a l p rope r t i e s o f nanoma t e r i a l s o r

nanoparticles. The public cannot be expected to
become involved in dialog and communication
processes that do not interest them. Some sug-
gested solutions involve changing the media rep-
resentations. While it might be a good idea for
scientists to provide good didactic information for
the media, it might not be a good idea to try
altering how the media evaluate what news is
deemed relevant to communicate or to intervene
in the workings of the media and the principles of
news evaluation. Criticizing or trying to manipu-
late the free press might cause serious backlashes
in public trust.

Do not waste effort developing any generic framework
for communication While the fragmentation of the field
is recognized in the reviewed literature, many of the
recommendations assume that the communication of
nanotechnology is a uniform, generic problem. There
are, however, large differences between nanotechnology
applications and areas of use: there are different tech-
nologies used for manufacturing, different bulk mate-
rials, different industrial sectors, and consequently dif-
ferent responsible regulatory bodies. Nanomaterials in-
volve a wide range of techniques and materials with
very little in common in terms of potential risks
and benefits, and there is large variation in public
perception depending on the specific uses. The
communication of nanotechnology cannot be ad-
dressed as a generic problem, as it is context
dependent. For this reason, diverse communication
strategies might have to be developed for different
application areas. Besides being inefficient and
difficult to implement, a unified framework for
the communication of nanotechnology might very
well prompt serious backlashes. For example, by
applying mandatory labeling across diverse areas
of nanotechnology application, hazards identified
in one application area might have seriously neg-
ative effects on public perceptions of other
completely unrelated products as regards toxicity
or potential risk scenarios.

Acknowledgements We would like to thank the anonymous
reviewers for constructive criticism. We are grateful to Richard
Arvidsson, Max Boholm, Maris Gillette and Monica Lind–
Montoya for valuable comments on earlier versions of the paper.

J Nanopart Res (2019) 21: 86 Page 17 of 21 86

Funding information This research has been founded by the
Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research
(MISTRA) and the Swedish Research Council.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest The authors declare that they have no con-
flict of interest.

Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestrict-
ed use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided
you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source,
provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if
changes were made.

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  • What is the problem? A literature review on challenges facing the communication of nanotechnology to the public
  • Abstract
    Introduction
    Method, research questions, and analytical framework
    Background: what do we know about public understanding of nanotechnology?
    Public knowledge, attitude, interest, and engagement
    Factors explaining public attitudes toward �and perception of nanotechnology
    The problem of communicating nanotechnology to the public
    The public is a problem
    Societal institutions are a problem
    Nanotechnology itself is a problem
    Solutions for the communication of nanotechnology to the public
    Solutions if the public is seen as the problem.
    Solutions if societal organizations are seen as the problem
    Solution if nanotechnology itself is seen as the problem
    Discussion
    Conclusions
    References

Standard Outline Format

Purpose: The purpose of an outline is to identify the most important ideas in one or more chapters of a textbook and organize them according to their importance.

I. Roman Numerals are used to identify the biggest and most important ideas. If you are outlining more than one chapter, then you will usually use roman numerals to identify the chapter titles. If you are only outlining one chapter then you will use roman numerals to identify section headings.

A. Main Ideas are identified by capital letters. In the textbook that we use the main ideas are all in red bold letters. Every time you see a heading that is big and red you will write it down with a capital letter to the left of it.

1. sub-headings are smaller parts of a main idea. They are identified by numbers. In our text book, most subheadings are green. Sometimes, however, there aren’t any subheadings. In that case you will write the first sentence of a paragraph as a subheading.

a. supporting details are usually examples, proper nouns or numbers. They are identified by lower case letters.

b. supporting detail

c. supporting detail

2. sub-heading

a.

b

B. Main Idea

1. sub-heading

a. supporting detail

b. supporting detail

The above explanation was done in outline format.

You will notice that every time there is an idea that is a part of a larger one, the smaller idea is indented.

The use of roman numerals, capital letters , numbers and lower case letters will vary depending on the length of the section or paragraph.

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