Americans welcome new potential life-saving and -enhancing applications promised by nanotechnology but at the same time voice concern over a lack of research into nanotechnology’s potential long-term human health and environmental effects and want to ensure that the government and private sectors are equipped and willing to effectively manage any would-be risks.

A new study by The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, based on a series of representative experimental issues groups held this summer, found that the public most anticipates major medical breakthroughs from nanotechnology and new consumer products that improve quality of life. People also want nanotechnology to help advance environmental protection, lower energy costs, and provide better food and nutrition products.

But people are concerned about the lack of consumer awareness of nanotechnology and of the estimated 500 to 700 nanotechnology products already on the market and is troubled by potential unknown human health and environmental consequences, and by possible unintended uses.

The biggest hurdle may be convincing a skeptical public that oversight by government and industry will be swift, rigorous and independent of outside influences. Some respondents offered past examples of what they saw as “failed” oversight to support their belief that nano oversight might be less than what is needed.

“Thorough pre-market product safety testing was a key way people wanted government and industry to act to improve trust,” says Dr. Jane Macoubrie, author of the report. “Numerous named examples ranging from Vioxx to dioxin have created a widespread perception that industry pushes new products to market without adequate safety testing, and people feel industry too often has put its own interests ahead of consumer safety.”

A majority of study participants, 55 percent, say that government oversight beyond voluntary standards is needed to manage any possible health and environmental risks. Only 11 percent feel voluntary standards, which have been a key part of government and industry discussions about nanotechnology oversight so far, would be adequate.

But 76 percent of study participants believe that banning new nanotechnologies until more is known about the technology would be an overreaction.