The Federal Government’s National Enabling Technology Strategy– Public Awareness and Engagement Program (NETS-PACE) ran from February 2010 to June 2013. It was intended to provide ‘balanced’ and ‘factual’ information to “allow the public to make more informed choices about emerging technologies” and “to capture public perspectives, concerns and visions, and inform and influence decision making relevant to science and technology”.

An independent review of the program, which was recently made public, shows they did neither. Instead many of the materials reviewed shamelessly promoted the nanotechnology industry; made only brief reference to potential health and environmental risks; and inaccurately reflected the current lack of regulation. The review also observed a disconnect between key policy decisions and public engagement processes.

The materials reviewed represented the full spectrum of materials produced or funded by the Department, including CSIRO teacher information, TechNYou materials and Government information materials. The review found that Government materials were largely geared towards promotional rather than education and outreach objectives. The review also found a number of instances of bias and inaccuracy in public awareness and education materials on nanotechnology which were produced or funded by the Government.

These include the Government funded TechNYou website which is described as a technology information service, yet NGO members of the Minister’s Stakeholder Advisory Council (SAC) found it “basically promotes nano and other technologies.”  For example, the ‘space elevator’ module for high school teaching describes carbon nanotubes, yet makes no reference to potential risks – despite carbon nanotubes being declared a hazardous chemical because of evidence they may cause cancer.

Other materials reviewed included a Government commissioned Avant Card booklet – Does size really matter? The reviewers found this made scant reference to any of the potential risks associated with nanotechnology and implied that the Government and scientists “are addressing these problems” – despite nanomaterials in Australia being virtually unregulated. The reviewers noted that the booklet “read as a marketing communication text and has a tone of promotion and reassurance” despite its purpose ostensibly being to provide “basic information about nanotechnology including risk and regulations”.

Similarly, another Government factsheet Nanotechnology and you: Safety and regulations gives the misleading impression that nanomaterials in Australia are regulated.

The review also raised concerns about a number of the public engagement processes conducted by the Department observing that “these events were aimed primarily at anticipating and managing stakeholder responses rather than dialogue.” The reviewers asked “were these events held to provide wide ranging information and to create debate and genuine dialogue on nanotechnology – or to highlight successful and appealing applications that would serve as ‘pin up posters’ for generating public interest and acceptance of nanotech?”

While the review acknowledged that public engagement processes had improved more recently, the review raised concerns about the disconnect between public engagement processes and policy formulation. The reviewers note that “internationally, the trend is not only towards two way communication but also towards upstream public engagement to ensure more effective opportunities for stakeholder input to policy goals and investment priorities, and to support participatory and anticipatory technology assessment.”

The review states that “engagement processes need to take place prior or at the same time as policies are determined, rather than after policies have been put in place. This requires a willingness by the policy-makers to listen to views emerging from public consultations and to demonstrate how stakeholder input has been included.”  The reviewers argue that “raising expectations about inclusion when foundational decisions have already been made may actually add to social distrust, resulting in a perverse outcome. This diminishes the potential to create the ‘positive culture’ between stakeholders that is being sought.”

The Department’s response to this scathing review has been to obfuscate and to attempt to bury it. The review was completed in August 2012, however the Department then commissioned its own review of the review by Biotext. This is a science communication company that worked with the Department on the NETS PACE STEP program, a forum on Synthetic Biology and drafted the NETS Enabling Technology Futures report. So a company with a close relationship with the Department was tasked with summarising a review of projects including ones it was involved with – yet the Department still had the audacity to term the review ‘independent.’ Needless to say the report put a positive spin on the review findings questionably stating that “the facts presented in the PACE materials were accurate” and that “problems with balance have receded as the program has matured.”

Furthermore, documents relating to the review weren’t released until late last month, when the Department posted some of the review documents and its response to the review at the bottom of its Research and Reports page. It appears the documents were only released after the Australia Institute requested the documents under FOI law and Senator Di Natale asked parliamentary questions on the topic. Notably, some of the more critical documents which found bias and inaccuracy in many of the materials reviewed, have yet to be released.

Worse, the Department’s response to the review and recommendations was lukewarm at best. It is clear that it intends to take no real action in response to the  recommendations. By way of illustration, the phrase “where appropriate” is used five times within the document – giving the Department plenty of wiggle room to carry on with business as usual. Interestingly, many of the materials that the SAC argued needed to be reviewed, removed or updated remained on the Department’s website until earlier this month when a critical article appeared in ABC Science Online.

All of this signals that the Department intends to continue uncritically promoting nanotechnology, whilst research into the potential environmental, health and safety issues continues to lag behind commercial development.

Notably, the Government’s National Enabling Technologies Strategy, and the funding associated with it wrapped up at the end of the last financial year – and so far, the Government has introduced nothing to replace it. In the lead up to the Federal Election the Coalition promised to “consult with relevant stakeholders with any policy considerations in this area.” However it is not clear how they intend to do this now that the Government’s Stakeholder Advisory Council and public engagement activities around new technologies have been discontinued.