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Journalism professor reads the fine print about nanotech risks

Sharon Friedman presents at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Nanotechnology is being used in everyday products such as cosmetics, sunscreens, tennis balls and even stain-resistant clothing. Like other emerging technologies with extensive applications, it’s touted by government officials and industry personnel as having great promise.

But how much do we know about nanotechnology? Does the public realize that the long-term effects of these nanoparticles are still unknown? And what are the possible environmental and health implications for humans and animals?

These are the questions that concern Sharon M. Friedman, professor and director of the Science and Environmental Writing Program and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Nanotechnology – which gives scientists the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things between 1-100 nanometers – has generated the sale of more than $50 billion in products in 2006, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

While Friedman agrees that nanotechnology is a positive contribution to society, she and a number of scientists and others in the field believe that its long-term effects and risks have not been extensively studied or well communicated to the public.

Friedman’s curiosity led her to research the mass media’s coverage of potential health and environmental risks associated with the technology. By determining what the media are telling the public, she’s able to examine an important factor that helps to establish the public’s level of knowledge and understanding of and trust in nanotechnology.

In collaboration with Lehigh research scientist Brenda Egolf, Friedman has examined trends in reporting by tracking seven years worth of newspaper and wire-service coverage in the United States and the United Kingdom. The researchers examine the data, collected from 2000 to 2006, seeking insights into how the articles addressed the health and environmental risk, societal and regulatory perspectives associated with nanotechnology.

A small, but growing, number of articles published

Study’s latest results show that media coverage of nanotechnology is on the rise. Friedman presented these findings in December at a Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies event at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

“While the number of media articles raising concerns about nanotechnology risks is still small, it is growing, and there was a shift in the type of reporting in 2006,” said Friedman, who was joined by National Public Radio science and technology reporter Nell Greenfieldboyce for the event.

To view a summary of Friedman’s presentation and download her PowerPoint slides from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies event click here.

Friedman also presented her research at the annual meeting of the Society for Risk Analysis in San Antonio, Texas in December.

According to the study, the number of U.S. risk-focused articles rose 58 percent, from 36 in 2005 to 57 in 2006. When the study first began in 2000, only nine risk-focused articles were published the United States and only three in the United Kingdom.

Another change, Friedman says, is that coverage is shifting away from scientific studies about risks toward more regulatory issues. More articles covering regulatory issues appeared in 2006 than in all 2000-2005 combined.

“I think the rise in coverage is directly related to increasing interest in regulating nanotechnology by a number of different parties, particularly groups of scientists and engineers and non-profit think tanks,” said Friedman. “The U.S. government and others in the field are concerned about public trust in nanotechnology products and regulating these products may increase trust in them,” she added.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the study will continue to analyze articles from 2007, with the possibility of providing analysis for 2008.

Undergraduate students in Lehigh’s Science and Environmental Writing Program have been able to participate in various aspects of the project. Caitlin Shenk '08 and Caitlyn Kennedy '09 coded the articles for content analysis throughout the past two years. And Kennedy, along with Christopher Knight ’09, assisted with data analysis. Last year, Christine Pense, a history of technology of graduate student, also took part in the research.

Friedman credits Martin Harmer, the Alcoa Foundation Professor of materials science and engineering, and the Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences for providing additional assistance and support for her research.

Friedman’s work in the field of science and environmental journalism has led to extensive research on risk communication related to health effects of radiation from nuclear plants and nuclear weapons facilities. She was elected to the governing council of the Society of Risk Analysis for a three-year term at the end of 2007.

--Tricia Long

Posted on Tuesday, January 29, 2008

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