Cyber technology has been fertile ground for science fiction
Cardiff University's research into transatlantic attitudes to nanotechnology is being held up an example of its world-leading expertise.
Nanotechnology is the range of sciences now growing up around structures the size of molecules or even atoms.
The university's school of psychology collaborated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, for the first two-country study of attitudes.
The results were published in Nature Nanotechnology last week.
Professor Nick Pidgeon led the Cardiff research team. He said the results showed "striking" similarities as well as differences in the two populations' response.
A Royal Society report in 2003, of which Prof Pidgeon was a commission member, said nanotechology would throw up unique ethical and social issues which needed debate with the public.
The technology is still young, with only a few hundred nano-engineered products publicly available on the market.
But it has been fertile ground for science fiction writers, with scare stories of runaway nano robots using up all the world's resources to replicate themselves or humanity becoming dominated by half-human cyborgs.
Prof Pidgeon said: "Nanotechnology is very much in the development stage, just as nuclear energy was in 1949.
"Nuclear energy had a very positive public image in the 1950s but after a number accident, it fell out of public favour.
"The concern is whether nano technology will go the same way or will it be like information technology which has been widely accepted and is not sees has having risk issues attached?"
The researchers were the first to set up a cross-national study of people's attitudes to nano technology, with two four-and-half-hour workshops in both Cardiff and Santa Barbara.
Prof Pidgeon said: "There was a lot of similarity between the two countries. We predicted there would be more differences."
People on both sides of the Atlantic expressed optimism about the use of nanotechnology applications in relation to energy and health.
But the British group raised more moral questions about the applications of nano technology to health and human wellbeing.
They cited the BSE epidemic, the cattle foot-and-mouth disease outbreak and controversy around GM food as examples of their concern about the future regulation of technology, said Prof Pidgeon.
He said: "It has an important implication. What it says is you cannot regulate nano technology as a whole.
"You will get public calls for different types of regulation in different domains."
Prof Pidgeon said the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) rated Cardiff University's department of psychology as one of the top in the UK when its quality profile was multiplied by number of staff in the RAE exercise.