Australia currently lacks a mechanism to gather evidence on the formation of public attitudes to the introduction of new technologies, particularly the formation of attitudes to nuclear energy technology.
This is a limiting factor in achieving informed debate in the development of a national energy policy.
These are key findings in a research project recently completed by the National Academies Forum. Its report, Understanding the Formation of Attitudes to Nuclear Power in Australia, will be released today at a CEDA function in Perth (details below).
Noting that a distinction needs to be made between ‘opinions’ and ‘attitudes’, the report highlights the crucial importance of a rigorously established base of community attitudes for any future policy and program development and highlights the absence in Australia of such a process for gathering of this kind of evidence.
Key study conclusions include:
Any measurement of attitudes remains essentially problematic, as it involves the measurement of language as well as requiring contemplation and reflection, thus relying on memory.
An attitude (behaviour) is different from an opinion (verbal expression), and it is only from any subsequent behaviour change that accurate measures of attitude can be concluded.
Attitude formation is a long and complex process which has both gender and intergenerational differences. It draws on individual belief systems and the moral and political domains within which individuals operate, both individually and within groups. This explains why nuclear power continues to provide an example of essentially polarised attitudes.
The diffusion of new technologies such as nuclear power becomes integrated, adopted or rejected within a social change (political) agenda. The role played by societal groups, their networks and their relationships within institutional infrastructures, is crucial to any technological change being adopted.
Risk perceptions remain immediate, dynamic and historically influenced, and in the debate on nuclear power this often becomes a choice between different equally risky alternatives, which are then spatially and temporally dependent.
Attitudes to nuclear power offer an example of an essential contradiction of views (e.g. the ‘no nuclear now, but we expect it to be important in the future’ response), which links to an ambivalent public relationship with science institutions and a continued apprehension about new technologies when uncertainty about risk remains.
An understanding of how public opinion is shaped through information processes and expectations that people hold about science and science communication is critical. International research has found that simply giving people more information does not necessarily lead to a greater understanding of the issues or to an acceptance of new technologies.