Religion is said to be the driving influence behind Americans' low moral opinion of nanotechnology, according to a researcher who surveyed public opinion on science and technology.
Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences, and a colleague found in their study that only 29.5 percent of respondents from a sample of 1,015 adult Americans agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable.
When the survey was conducted in European countries, who are reportedly also key players in nanotechnology, the results were strikingly different.
In the United Kingdom, 54.1 percent found nanotechnology to be morally acceptable. In Germany, 62.7 percent accepted nanotechnology on moral grounds. That percentage climbed higher in France where 72.1 percent of survey respondents expressed no moral qualms about the technology.
Scheufele presented results from the 2007 summer survey on Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He conducted the U.S. survey with Arizona State University (ASU) colleague Elizabeth Corley under the auspices of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU.
The professor said religion accounts for distinct differences between the moral opinion of Americans and Europeans in regard to nanotechnology.
"The United States is a country where religion plays an important role in peoples' lives," said Scheufele .
"The importance of religion in these different countries that shows up in data set after data set parallels exactly the differences we're seeing in terms of moral views. European countries have a much more secular perspective."
Merriam-Webster defines nanotechnology as "the art of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale especially to build microscopic devices."
The use of nanotechnology ranges from innovative devices such as electricity-generating fabrics to diagnosis devices that detect early signs of brain cancer. But its application to controversial fields like embryonic stem cell research is where it draws its critics.
According to Scheufele, Americans with strong religious convictions lump together nanotechnology, biotechnology and stem cell research as means to enhance human qualities.
Researchers are viewed as "playing God" when they create materials that do not occur in nature, especially where nanotechnology and biotechnology intertwine, he said.
Scientists involved in stem cell research often draw the stem cells from days-old embryos, resulting in its destruction. This practice has been widely criticized by conservative Christians who have ethical objections to the purposeful destruction of the embryos which they consider tantamount to killing human life.
Many Christian advocate groups have asked the U.S. government to instead provide further funding for adult stem cell research, which has resulted in numerous therapies whereas research involving embryos has produced none. They have also asked the scientific community to explore non-embryonic alternatives for stem cells including a recent breakthrough technique that re-programs an adult cell to possess embryonic-like qualities.
The moral qualms people of faith express about nanotechnology, added Scheufele, are not a question of ignorance of the technology. Although survey respondents are well-informed of nanotechnology and its application, "they are still rejecting it based on religious beliefs," he said.
"The issue isn't about informing these people. They are informed," said Scheufele.
But the new study has critical implications for how experts explain the technology and its applications, according to the professor, who believes the scientific community should re-evaluate the way they place technology in context and in understanding the attitudes of the American public.
The survey was undertaken in the summer of 2007 by the UW-Madison Survey Center and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.