People with stronger religious beliefs tend to be opposed to nanotechnology, which is said to have the potential to alter the fundamentals of nature, according to the report, published last December in the Nature Nanotechnology journal.
In the US and European countries where religion still plays a large role in everyday life, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland, nanotech is thus much less acceptable than in more secular France and Germany, found the report, which saw researchers compare attitudes to nanotechnology in 12 European countries and the US.
Professor Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin's life sciences department, who led the research, is surprised by the Americans' sceptical view of nanotechnology, which he said does not correspond with US society's general openness towards innovation and new technologies.
The findings are even more interesting as many of the discoveries underpinning nanotechnology stem from US universities and companies, Scheufele said.
For him, the results also showed that the public's attitude towards science turns negative when people filter their views through religion.
"What we captured is nano-specific, but it is also representative of a larger attitude toward science and technology," Scheufele says. "It raises a big question: What's really going on in our public discourse, where science and religion often clash?"
Nanotechnology is widely perceived as one of the key technologies of the 21st century, with a potential to grow into a 1 trillion euro industry within a decade. Businesses are increasingly using nanotechnology in sectors as diverse as healthcare (medicine), consumer products (food, electronics and cosmetics), information technology and the environment.
More than 1,000 nanoproducts are already on the market, ranging from more efficient solar panels and scratch-resistant automobile paint to souped-up golf clubs.
At the same time, fears are growing that nanotech could turn into a political battleground, with fierce debates about its environmental and ethical dangers, as was the case in the biotechnology field (see our Links Dossier).