authored by Margaret Glass, ASTC
The Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies  recently released the results of their third annual phone survey about nanoawareness in the US general public. The first awareness poll , conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. and reported in 2006, indicated that only 30% of the American public had heard something about nanotechnology. So how much of an increase has there been in public awareness about nano in the past two years? Apparently, none. In fact, if the numbers are taken at face value, they could be interpreted as indicating a decrease in the percentage of the public that has heard about nano (24% knew “a lot” or “some” in 2008). Yet over the same time period, there has been almost a fourfold jump in products on the market that are made using nanotechnology (according to the Consumer Products Inventory ). This is also the time period in which the NISE Network has created public education products and experiences aimed at engaging the public in nano, and successfully spread them around the country. Do these numbers mean anything for us? How do they relate to our success or failure? The first thing to consider is the population being polled, and how it overlaps (or not) with our publics. The Hart poll is carried out by an experienced firm, the same one that produces well-known NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls. It is a representative national telephone survey of about 1000 adults drawn from households across the nation. Our target populations for the NISE Network include two groups: science center/museum professionals and the science-engaged publics that walk through the doors of our institutions. We have incomplete knowledge about the sizes of both of these target groups, but estimates can be made on the basis of the 2007 ASTC Sourcebook of Statistics and Analysis. Based on extrapolation from the numbers reported in the 2007 survey (43% response rate), the total US science center/museum workforce may be estimated at 110,000 full or part time workers and volunteers. Annual US visitorship is estimated at over 56 million, including 12.8 million children in school groups. How many of these staff and visitors were reached by NanoDays programs instigated by NISE Net for the period from March 26 through April 6, 2008? 100 kits were distributed to institutions in 25 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. As of May, 2008, reports had been submitted for 118 events from 49 organizations – the number of visitors reached is conservatively estimated at over 15,000. Is there any reason to suspect that these two groups – the nano-aware general public and the NISE Net-impacted science-center visitors and workers – would overlap? I would guess there is only a minimal chance of that, given the total US population of 300,000,000 and counting as reported by the US Census Bureau’s population clock . Truthfully, it is beyond my ability to make a reasonable statistical estimate of any potential overlap. However, it is interesting to think more specifically about assumptions underlying both of these measures. How representative are telephone polls these days, when increasing numbers of individuals, especially young adults, don’t have landlines that phone surveys reach? How do science centers and museums assess the impact of programs on visitors when school groups, that often account for almost one-quarter of visitorship, are often considered separately from general publics for planning or assessment purposes? Do we really know how our visitorship relates to the larger community surrounding our museums, those publics that don’t share a museum-attending habit for whatever reason? Obviously, these are a lot of big questions, and it’s encouraging to see that some institutions are grappling with these issues of identifying where their reach ends. But it seems like the NISE Net might be able to contribute to this effort of following the diffusion of specific content knowledge throughout a community, if for no other reason than the esoteric nature of nano-knowledge, and the reasonable assumption of low prior exposure. In the meantime, I am eager to see the results of the post NanoDays evaluation – an effort to follow up on participants from a variety of NISE Net events and to detail their reactions and recollections. And I think I won’t hold my breath for any changes in nanoawareness in the US general public for quite awhile.