Australian Greens Senator Christine Milne has a long-standing interest in nanotechnology and new technology issues. In the June Government Estimates hearings, Senator Milne grilled Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr, the head of the Department’s Innovation Division Craig Pennifold and Australian Chief Scientist Dr Jim Peacock over the federal government’s handling of nanotechnology issues. In persistent questioning, Senator Milne exposed deep-seated confusion among those charged with ensuring the safety and responsible handling of nanotechnology regarding exactly what’s going on…

Download a transcript of the hearings below.

Estimates hearings – Nanotechnology 2nd Jun 08

STANDING COMMITTEE ON ECONOMICS Discussion 02/06/08 Senator MILNE—I want to ask some questions about the National Nanotechnology Strategy and the decisions around nanotechnology. I note that the National Nanotechnology Strategy is to be defunded, according to this. I understand there were several objectives with it in the first place. Can you give me a progress report on where it is up to and how we are going to address nanotechnology? Are we assuming it is implemented and therefore we do not need to fund it? What is the strategy with nanotechnology?

Senator Carr—Pre-election, on 21 November, there was an announcement of savings of $11.9 million for the cessation of the National Nanotechnology Strategy. The funding was for 2009-10 and 2010-11, so the program for funding for this year and next year will not be affected. There will be an existing allocation for the two years of $3.69 million and $5.82 million. I will be looking to the national innovation review to provide advice on further issues. In terms of priorities that have been established through the operation of the NNS, there will be concentration on health and safety, environmental impacts of nanotechnology, regulations and standards, public awareness and engagement on nanotechnology and the various measurement issues in relation to the National Measurement Institute, and an attempt to facilitate a whole-of-government approach to nanotechnology through the establishment of a national office of nanotechnology.

Senator MILNE—They were the objectives that were in the National Nanotechnology Strategy when it came out. I would like to go through them. Where are we up to with the strategy in addressing the health, safety and environmental impacts on regulations and standards? Mr Pennifold—The Australian Office of Nanotechnology sits within my division. As you pointed out, we had a four-year strategy, which contained the elements that have been pointed out. Over the first two years of the strategy we will continue with all of those elements. In relation to the health, safety and environmental impacts, we have MOUs in place with all of Australia’s key regulators in this area, and the work that we are proposing to do will continue in terms of looking at the current regulations and the work that is needed to underpin those. That work is ongoing.

Senator MILNE—I understand that there is to be, or was, a review of regulations covering nanotechnology conducted by Professor Hodge at Monash University. Is that now complete or is it ongoing? How is this feeding into regulation and labelling so that consumers know whether they are purchasing food products, sunscreen et cetera that have nanoparticles in them?

Mr Pennifold—The Monash report, as we call it, has now been completed. All of the regulators are working their way through that report. You might be aware that it does look across Australia’s regulatory system. The intent of the government is to release that report in the coming months.

Senator MILNE—Can you tell me whether there are products on the market in Australia now, such as fruit juice, processed meat, diet milkshakes, baby food, packaging for salads and those sorts of thing and sunscreen, which already have nanoparticles in them that the consumer just would not know about?

Mr Pennifold—I am aware that there are sunscreen products that have nanomaterials in them, and that has been advised by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. In relation to food safety, that is a function of a group called FSANZ, which reports to the health minister.

Senator MILNE—What I am trying to understand here is the interface between the research and the regulatory process. I presume that the office that you are overseeing must be directing some of the research or having something to do with it. How are we getting the information to FSANZ so that they can make regulatory judgements?

Mr Pennifold—We have established a cross-government group on health, safety and the environment, which does include both the research agencies and the regulators. We commissioned the Monash report to start looking at some of those areas where more work might be needed. We are now at the stage of having those more substantive discussions. The Australian Office of Nanotechnology is facilitating discussions between regulators and research providers about where we need to go to next in filling in the additional bits of knowledge that might be needed

Senator MILNE—If I go to the supermarket at the moment and buy a packet of fresh salad leaves, can you tell me whether that packaging has nanotechnology in it to kill bacteria and to extend its shelf life for weeks longer than it otherwise would be?

Mr Pennifold—The issue of food labelling falls to FSANZ.

Senator MILNE—They regulate on the basis of the information that they get. I am concerned that right now consumers cannot know, because there is no labelling. I am putting you on notice about attending rapidly to that sort of thing. Your second requirement for the strategy is to undertake a public awareness and engagement program to provide balanced advice on nanotechnology. What have you done to raise public awareness? My guess is that 90 to 95 per cent of people would not have any awareness of nanotechnology and what it does and can do.

Mr Pennifold—We have already had some public forums where experts from various walks of life have spoken to the community about nanotechnology. As you point out, this is a new technology in a new area, so knowledge is quite patchy. We are developing some promotional materials at the moment. We have developed a website and home page which will provide information on nanotechnology and link people to other key sites. As part of that work, we are also producing a kit for high school students which will talk about various aspects of nanotechnologies.

Senator MILNE—Websites require people to have some basic understanding to start with. For example, I mentioned the issue of sunscreens. A lot of people think it is great that there is now a sunscreen that is clear, as opposed to creamy, thick and white. They buy it for cosmetic purposes, not knowing that the nanoparticles in it are what is making the difference and not knowing that their body can absorb them. Would you agree that it is a concern that those products are out there for people to buy and that there is no awareness about them?

Mr Pennifold—All of the products available have gone through the various regulatory processes. In the case of sunscreens over a certain rating, that would the Therapeutic Goods Administration. In the case of foods and packaging for foods and so on, that would be through the regulatory system run by FSANZ.

Senator MILNE—What about establishing the nanoparticle metrology capability at the National Measurement Institute? Where are we up to with that?

Dr Besley—We have a two-year program in place to establish nanoparticle characterisation. The first year of that program has nearly ended, and we are entering into our second year. The funding we have available to us now has allowed us to employ two new members of staff in this area and to reallocate some of the resources from other parts of our present staffing structure. It also enabled us to purchase a couple of key pieces of equipment for this area. So the program will proceed, and will continue to proceed, after the special funding has cut out at the end of the next financial year, 2008-09—though at a reduced pace compared to what we had planned initially.

Senator MILNE—Can you explain to me what capability you would expect to be able to deliver on the funding that you have now? When you say it will be at a reduced pace, where did you want to get to? Where will it take you to and where will it fall short of?

Dr Besley—By the end of the next financial year, we expect to be able to deliver meaningful measurements on the nature and size of very small particles that are presented to us in samples, wherever those samples may come from—whether they are in pharmaceutical products, food products, coating products or whatever. We also expect in the longer term to be able to deliver a national standard for measurements at these sorts of dimensions—in other words, to be able to relate them reliably to a defined national standard in this area. By a ‘standard’ I mean a national reference rather than a document—a national reference for length in this area of science.

Senator MILNE—How far ahead of or behind the rest of the world are we in this capability?

Dr Besley—Certainly the developed countries like the US and Europe are ahead of us in this area, but many of the developed economies in the world are in a similar state of preparedness to ourselves. This is a very new area, which is developing rapidly. I guess it is fair to say that different areas of the world are concentrating on different aspects of this work.

Senator MILNE—Can anyone tell me whether nanosilver is being used in any of the public transport systems in Australia at this time?

Dr Besley—I cannot.

Mr Pennifold—I cannot comment. I do not know.

Senator MILNE—My real concern here is that this technology is moving much faster than the regulatory arrangements—but it also provides us with opportunities as well. Minister, this is a cutting edge field, and the nanotechnology strategy that was in place identifies a number of areas such as mining, agribusiness, health, medicine, energy, environment, advanced materials, manufacturing, electronics, information and communication technologies where nanotechnology can have application and, presumably, build us some competitive advantage as well as recognises the need to protect the consumer in various ways. Why did the government choose to cut nanotechnology in the budget?

Senator Carr—The fact of the matter is that the Commonwealth is contributing the better part of $170 million per annum on research into nanotechnology. CSIRO has $73.8 million per annum. The ARC is spending $58.8 million, the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy is spending $27.1 million, AusIndustry is spending $6.7 million and the Australian Office of Nanotechnology is spending $3.7 million. There is a very substantial level of public investment in this important area. In fact, this really is leading edge research. The decision I announced on 21 November was in the context of the need to find budget savings. That is essentially the context for that decision.

Senator MILNE—This is a political comment: it would seem to me to be false economy to cut research funding in a field such as this, because it has the potential to transform everything.

Senator Carr—The truth of the matter is that it is a question that the national innovation review will have a look at, and I am looking forward to their recommendations in that regard. As I say, there is $170 million worth of investment per annum.

Senator MILNE—Where can a citizen go to get a sense of a whole-of-government research into nanotechnology? You have mentioned a range of programs through the Research Council, through the CSIRO and others, but is there anywhere where you can get a sense of what work is going on across all of these areas?

Senator Carr—There are two questions. There are the regulatory issues, which is where the issue of these reductions go and which do not cut in for two years. I am looking forward to further conversations about that matter in subsequent budgets. In other matters, can any of the officers assist with a whole-of-government response on nanotechnology?

Senator MILNE—Where could someone who is interested in nanotechnology go to see what the CSIRO is working on, which CRC and so on?

Mr Pennifold—We do have the website for the Australian Office of Nanotechnology. It is at a very early stage. Eventually we will be providing links right across government to where additional information can be found.

Senator MILNE—Is it correct that the website does not exist at the moment?

Mr Pennifold—I will need to take that on notice. I will check what is on the website.

Mr Paterson—The website is up and running now.

Senator MILNE—Is the interdepartmental committee on nanotechnology operational, Minister?

Senator Carr—Which committee? Senator MILNE—The interdepartmental committee. It states that a key priority of the Australian Office of Nanotechnology is to ensure a whole-of-government approach. It chairs an interdepartmental committee to consider cross-portfolio issues.

Senator Carr—I will let the officers deal with the IDC issue.

Mr Pennifold—We have continued on with an IDC that meets on about a quarterly basis. The specific focus of that, to date, has been on the health, safety and environment issues as we see those as very important ones to pursue in cross-government coordination. That committee has been up and running for quite some time. It includes regulators, departments of state and also bodies like CSIRO and the National Measurement Institute.

Senator MILNE—What has it achieved so far?

Mr Pennifold—What it has achieved is that, when we set up the Australian Office of Nanotechnology, we worked with the regulators and that helped us identify exactly how funds should be provided to those within the workplace area, those relating to health and safety, so that they can get on and do some of the work that they need to do. It has also helped in terms of coordination between bodies like CSIRO and NMI, so it is an essential point of contact for people who are working on nanotechnology issues.

Senator MILNE—What about the engagement with the state governments? Is the interdepartmental committee talking to state counterparts?

Mr Pennifold—The Australian Office of Nanotechnology has been talking to state counterparts on these issues, rather than to the whole of the IDC.

Senator MILNE—What are you talking to the state governments about?

Mr Pennifold—The issues that we are pursuing at a Commonwealth level are to do with health, safety and the environment. Some of the states, particularly Queensland and Victoria, are quite active in this area of nanotechnology and on the business development side, so we are looking at coordination of those sorts of activities with them.

Senator MILNE—When can the Australian consumer expect to have some standards or a regulatory arrangement in place?

Mr Pennifold—There are regulatory arrangements already in place in the organisations I mentioned earlier, the TGA, FSANZ and so on.

Senator MILNE—When you say there are regulations already in place, does that mean that food processors and packagers in Australia are already having to meet standards set by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, FSANZ and so on? If so, since we do not have the measurement capacity here yet, are they taken from best practice overseas? Otherwise, where do we get those standards from?

Mr Pennifold—You are probably best to direct specific questions about standards to the regulators themselves and during the Health portfolio. My understanding is that nanotechnology is picked up in part of the products, be they food or medicines, as part of the existing regulations that already apply in those areas.

Senator MILNE—Finally, where is the promise, in terms of new capacity in Australia in nanotechnology, either to improve the competitiveness of existing industries or to create new products et cetera?

Mr Pennifold—That is a very difficult question to answer because the technologies are so pervasive. Certainly, in the early work that we have done, materials science, the ICT area, medical devices, drug delivery systems and the like are areas in which there are already Australian companies making quite significant advances. It is a very pervasive set of technologies, so it could apply in very many areas of manufacturing.

Senator MILNE—Do you think it will transform manufacturing?

Mr Pennifold—When the PMSEIC committee looked at this a few years ago that was—

Senator MILNE—Which committee?

Mr Pennifold—The Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. There was a group there that looked at it. They were certainly of the view that nanotechnologies could fundamentally transform the economy.

Senator MILNE—Minister, given that was the view then that it could fundamentally transform the economy, I am concerned by the fact that the funding is dropping away. You mentioned that you are prepared to look at this through this innovation review. Can you explain to me how that will work in terms of reviewing this decision on nanotechnology?

Senator Carr—The national innovation review is specifically tasked with looking at opportunities for emerging technologies and emerging industries and in that context I would expect the review to provide advice to government about this matter. The funding for this program relates to the strategy and not to the research and, as I have indicated to you, the research program is running to the tune of about $170 million per annum. I am not anticipating that the program will fall away. It is about ensuring that any throw-on from that research technology is taken up by industry. We would be looking to see the work accelerated in the next two years. However, I would be anticipating that there would be an opportunity to discuss future funding commitments after the national innovation review.

Senator MILNE—Thank you.

Mr Pennifold—I can confirm that the Australian Office of Nanotechnology website is up and running. It does have a number of fact sheets on it, so if people have a general interest in nanotechnology it is a good first port of call for them.

Senator MILNE—Since China is manufacturing a lot of whitegoods that come into Australia, can you tell me whether there are any fridges coming into Australia that use nanoparticles of silver coating on their inner surface, and as well similarly so for cutlery, chopping boards et cetera? Mr Pennifold—I am not able to answer that.

Senator MILNE—Would that come under the Therapeutic Goods Administration or under FSANZ? If I went to buy a fridge, how would I know whether it has nanoparticles in it, given that nanosilver kills all bacteria, good and bad? That is why it is being used in public transport systems and that is why people are terrified of it. I am concerned that this is getting away from us and consumers do not know. Who can tell me, as to the regulatory framework in Australia, whether any whitegoods coming into the country are lined with nanosilver particles?

Mr Pennifold—That would be a question that you would need to put to the regulators.

Senator MILNE—Which one?

Mr Pennifold—It is probably best to direct it to the Health portfolio.

03/06/2008 Mr Paterson—There was a question raised by Senator Milne yesterday concerning the regulation of refrigerators containing nanosilver. Refrigerators for sale in Australia are subject to the provisions and protection afforded under part 5A of the Trade Practices Act, which relates to product liability. The Trade Practices Act is administered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which is appearing before the committee later today.

Chief Scientist:

Senator MILNE—I will move on in relation to other things. Has anyone in the new government asked you to do any work on nanotechnology? Dr Peacock—Nanotechnology is one of the topics on which I have been in discussion with the minister, Minister Carr. It is one of the areas of science that I believe is very important for Australia. I have been involved in preparing material describing what is being done in Australia at the moment and what is happening around the world so that the minister can consider the future position in support of this, if so, within Australia.

Senator MILNE—You are preparing, more or less, a state-of-play on nanotechnology report for the minister—is that a fair way to describe what you have just said?

Dr Peacock—I think so.

For more information about Senator Christine Milne and her activities on nanotechnology visit