The reality of the Australian government’s approach to nanotechnology belies its stated commitment to social democracy, writes Griffith University senior lecturer Dr Kristen Lyons in the Sydney Morning Herald, Age and Brisbane Times newspapers. "Communities are being kept in the dark, they are being given little opportunity to have their say about highly controversial technologies, meanwhile industry continues to roll out new technologies – virtually unregulated, untested and unlabelled."
The opinion piece by Dr Lyons is reprinted below.
"Democratic governments chant public engagement as the cornerstone of sound political decision-making. This mantra was heard in Western Australia last week, at an address by Senator Kim Carr to the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy.
In his speech, Carr described the Rudd Government’s commitment to social democratic processes. He claimed this commitment to social democracy as a vital process for ensuring policy-making agendas move beyond economic priorities to consider a broader range of social, cultural and political issues.
Carr himself admitted that despite Federal Government commitment to these ideals, there is still "a long way to go" to realise these. Casting a critical eye over recent attempts at public engagement related to Australia’s emerging technologies indicates we are even further from technology democracy than Carr and his department would like to admit.
The Australian Government’s repeated commitment to technology democracy – including commitments to engage the public as part of the policymaking cycle – looks more like smoke and mirrors than real social democracy. Communities are being kept in the dark, they are being given little opportunity to have their say about highly controversial technologies, meanwhile industry continues to roll out new technologies – virtually unregulated, untested and unlabelled.
Consider the Federal Government’s recently announced National Enabling Technologies Strategy to explore the paradox between Carr’s promises and actual policymaking processes. The Federal Government has labelled biotechnologies and nanotechnologies as "enabling technologies". Both these areas of science are highly controversial, raising multiple and diverse social, health, economic, ethical and environmental issues.
Given the highly controversial nature of biotechnology and nanotechnology, it is not surprising the National Enabling Technologies Strategy makes a stated commitment to engage the public as part of the policy process. However, in reality this public engagement is simply not happening. As a result, Australians will have little opportunity to contribute to the development of policy related to these new technologies -despite the profound impacts they are likely to present for all Australians.
I would like to turn to the specific impacts associated with nanotechnologies – or the "science of the small". Nanoparticles and nano-processes are being widely incorporated across the health, energy, military, food and agriculture sectors, amongst others. Given the diversity of these applications Australians are already being exposed to nanotechnologies, with products derived from nanotechnology found in hundreds of sunscreens, cosmetics, clothes, paints, household appliances, building materials and other products many of us use every day.
These applications introduce new health and environment risks to which we all face exposure, with recent research demonstrating some nanomaterials present similar health risks to asbestos, even causing mesothelioma in test mice.
Despite persisting concerns about safety risks, there is still no nano-specific safety assessment in place for any of these products. In addition, most Australians have heard little to nothing about this new technology. Making things worse, nano-products are not labelled. This denies consumers the capacity to make an informed choice about whether they wish to buy nano-products, and denies workers the right to know whether they face occupational exposure. These circumstances also limit the extent to which Australians will be able to develop their "nano-literacy" – or diverse and critical understandings of nanotechnologies.
As a recent participant in the hastily organised "stakeholder" consultation for the National Enabling Technologies Strategy, it appears there is little interest in democratic processes. Rather, it appears government has been swept of its feet by the promises of these new technologies, and is reticent to let democratic processes stand in the way in their roll out. A couple of specific criticisms of this stakeholder process demonstrate this.
Firstly, the organisers of this event have refused to make public minutes from consultations, or submissions made to the consultation – as is standard practice in most inquiries. It is also revealing that in recent meetings held around Australia as part of this process, three times as many consultations have been organised for the nanotechnology and biotechnology industries compared to those for public interest groups.
At a time of unprecedented climate, food, financial, energy and ecological crises there is an obvious and even urgent need to embrace new approaches and technologies. However, the interests and values of the community, not simply those of industry and the research community, must inform decision-making about which technologies we support through investment and commercialisation.
The transformative power of the new nano- and biotechnologies, coupled with the scale of the challenges we face, require that we take the democratisation of science seriously. We need a new way of thinking about science and technology which allows those who are affected by the technology to have a say in its development, and which allows the development of technology to be shaped by the needs and aspirations of the community – not the other way around.
Dr Kristen Lyons is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University’s Nathan campus".
This article is a reprint of the opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Brisbane Times and available at: