Panel Paper: Attitudinal Gap: How Experts and Lay Audiences Form Policy Attitudes Toward Controversial Science

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 9:45 AM
Salon III B (Ritz Carlton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Leona Yi-Fan Su1, Michael A. Cacciartore1, Dominique Brossard1, Dietram A. Scheufele1, Michael Xenos1 and Elizabeth A. Corley2, (1)University of Wisconsin, Madison, (2)Arizona State University
There have been numerous calls for policy-making around the issue of nanotechnology, despite uncertainty surrounding the risks associated with the science. In the absence of concrete risk assessment data, decision makers often rely upon the input of scientists to arrive at policy decisions. Of course, the opinions of experts may not necessarily match those of more general lay audiences. For instance, scholars have demonstrated that the American public and leading nanoscientists do not see eye-to-eye concerning the risks associated with nanotechnology. Such divergence of opinion may lead to disagreements concerning the best manner to regulate the science. Moreover, if lay audiences feel that their opinions are not adequately being taken into consideration it may foster feelings of distrust among the voting public toward science, scientists, and the regulatory process.

Combining representative survey of the American public with survey data of leading nanoscientists (as based on citation record), this study takes a granular look at attitudes concerning the regulation of nanotechnology. Our results suggest that lay audiences are more favorable toward the idea of the regulation of academic nanotechnology than are nanoscientists. However, the opinions of the two groups toward the regulation of commercial nanotechnology did not significantly differ. Scientists, not surprisingly, are more concerned about the potential restrictions on their academic progress posed by governmental regulation. This suggests that consensus between scientists and the public may be easier to achieve when nanotechnology regulation is discussed in terms of commercial as opposed to academic research.

Second, this study examines the factors influencing expert and public regulatory attitudes. Compared to scientists, public attitudes toward the regulation of nanotech are shaped to a much greater extent by value predispositions. Liberals and respondents with greater levels of religiosity were more likely to support regulation of nanotechnology, as were audiences who paid greater levels of attention to media. Across both scientists and lay audiences, perceptions of risks relative to benefits consistently predicted attitudes toward regulation. Importantly, scientists rely much less on their value predispositions when forming regulatory attitudes – instead basing such opinions largely on perceptions of regulatory impacts on scientific progress.

Importantly, our study suggests that scientists and lay audiences rely on different sets of considerations when making policy decisions about emerging technologies. Scientists are much more protective of the potential resources for their research (i.e., federal funding) that may be influenced be increased regulatory oversight. Lay audiences, on the other hand, do not appear to consider regulatory impacts on scientific progress when forming attitudes such attitudes. The implications of these findings, as well as the importance of closing the attitudinal gap between scientists and the general public concerning the regulatory framework for nanotechnology are discussed.

Keywords: regulation, expert opinion, public opinion, media, risk, nanotechnology