Shapeshifting stories and singing sock-puppets: inside the Government’s nano sunscreen wars

Kathryn Wilson

This is a story of an award-winning author who used his storytelling skills in his public servant day-job. It’s the story behind Australia’s nano-sunscreen wars. It’s about a smear-campaign — but not the slip-slop-slap type — dressed up as government research. It involves FOI documents that show a community group was a direct target of this campaign.

The story starts with two alarming news releases, dated 8 and 9 February 2012. One is headed: “Australians risking skin cancer to avoid nanoparticles”. The other opens: “Australians are putting themselves at increased risk of potentially deadly skin cancers” because of fears about nano particles.

The releases, issued from the federal Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE – pronounced by some as “Dessert”), cite as evidence a government survey that one release says “showed that about 17% of people in Australia were so worried about the issue, they would rather risk skin cancer by going without sunscreen than use a product containing nanoparticles.” The other release quotes a one-in-four figure. The releases get uncritically reported, re-reported, cited and distorted in countless news media, medical newsletters and science journals worldwide.

But they’re not true. At least, from an evidence-based perspective. “I don’t know where the 17 per cent comes from,” said Swinburne’s research design expert Dr Vivienne Waller, who analysed DIISRTE’s raw and filtered survey data, “but this is absolutely not a conclusion you could draw from the survey data. The questions from which this figure appears to be obtained are not about behaviour, but about perception of risk.”

Worse, responses to the survey might contradict the news releases: a majority of respondents indicated they used other  methods of sun-protection including avoiding sun exposure altogether and wearing long clothing and hats. “And there is nothing in the responses to these questions that indicate people would rather risk skin cancer by going without sunscreen as the media release states,” said Dr Waller.

“I can only conclude that it was written by someone who has little idea on how to correctly interpret survey data and perhaps had a story which they wanted to tell anyway.”

Why would DIISRTE issue such alarmist claims, and where did this online survey originate? This is where the story gets tangled in singing sock-puppets, scare campaigns and FOI documents.

The author of the media releases and the survey questions is Craig Cormick. Cormick holds a PhD in Creative Communication. According to his website, he’s an award-winning fiction writer and science communicator. One of his books, A Funny Thing Happened at 27,000 feet…, won a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award. His job is essentially PR: he’s Manager of Public Awareness and Community Engagement for the National Enabling Technologies Strategy (NETS), a two-year-old outfit which supports development of the nanotech and biotech sectors and advises on policy. NETS operates under DIISRTE.

Though geared toward industry interests, NETS is publicly-funded, and part of its charter is “providing industry and the community with balanced and factual information”, produced in consultation with “key stakeholders” including public-interest NGOs.

In his job, Cormick fended off complaints alleging this was a sham. Early in NETS’ development, twelve NGOs, — including the Consumer Federation of Australia, the Consumer Health Forum, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the ACTU — expressed concern about “bias and  failure to deal professionally and genuinely with NGOs in relation to nanotechnology”, according to The Australia Institute’s (TAI) Kerrie Tucker. In a conference on government-public engagement, the TAI’s Executive Director Richard Denniss characterised what he viewed as “partisan” and “essentially propaganda”:

When governments are putting information up on websites, that information has to be accurate and complete… my favourite example of [partisan education material is] a nice little [DIISRTE-hosted] video where a woman with a sock-puppet sings a song about how exciting nanotechnology is, and how safe nanotechnology is, and how only idiots think nanotechnology could have any harmful effects… Having a sock-puppet trivialising potential risks is not very accurate and certainly not complete.

The sock-puppet video, titled Nano nano, what a wonderful surprise, was but one of a suite of aggressively partisan education materials hosted on DIISRTE’s ‘technyou’ education site. As many news outlets have reported, scientific opinion is divided on whether novel nano-particles permitted in the manufacture of some sunscreens pose health or environmental risks. Australian authorities say current weight-of-evidence points to safety, and they cite many research papers that appear to support this. Public-interest NGO scientists say these authorities overlook gaps in the data, ignore recent research or favour research that has bias toward industry. (Friends of the Earth’s Dr Gregory Crocetti says there is “inherent conflict of interest [in the Therapeutic Goods Administration]. That is, the TGA is 100 per cent industry funded.”)

This is a standard scenario with contested science in the public sphere: each side tends to accuse the other of privileging research that supports a particular agenda. So when the 12 public-interest stakeholders asked NETS to promote a more balanced, less-partisan approach taken by some European agencies, things degraded into Yes Minister farce.

Frustrated with what they saw as a campaign of exclusion, eight of the NGOs wrote to (then) Minsiter Kim Carr, complaining about NETS’ “failure to take seriously NGO concerns about the lack of balance, accuracy and professionalism in its public engagement activities and communication materials.”

The minister didn’t respond. And there was alleged stonewalling from Cormick’s office. But the blame couldn’t be laid solely with Cormick: the problem remains systemic. According to some key stakeholders, after protracted delays and obfuscation, NETS referred the complaints to its non-existent Ministerial Stakeholder Advisory Council (SAC) in 2010.

Happily, the SAC was finally formed in 2011, but the NETS office, against whom the complaints were being made, selected the materials and events to be reviewed by the panel. “The materials being provided to the review panel were to be chosen by staff within the department responsible for NETS,” said SAC member, the VTHC’s Renata Musolino, who represents the ACTU on several nanotech forums.

But this is all she or any others could say: SAC members could not take their mounting grievances outside the Department, as they were bound by confidentiality agreements. To add insult, some were shocked at the eleventh hour to learn of Cormick’s survey and subsequent misleading media releases. “FOI documents show he had not consulted the SAC about this secret survey,” said Louise Sales, who represents one of the key stakeholders, Friends of the Earth (Foe). The SAC was routinely consulted for other NETS public-attitude surveys. Why not this one? Cormick justified his non-consultation later in an email by saying he wanted to keep the survey “independent”. But industry players had been consulted in the media releases. Why? What could be gained from making alarmist links between nano-precaution and “deadly skin cancers”?

Friends of the Earth (FoE) had its suspicions, and lodged an FOI request. The fruits of these requests aren’t bound by gag clauses. And the hundreds of released pages of emails and correspondence tell a story of what can be seen as a scare-campaign dressed up as government research. Some correspondence is missing and others are heavily redacted, but the documents show clearly that Cormick and two US colleagues linked nanotech fears to skin cancer well before he drafted the survey questions and committed public funds to the research. It is explicit from the first email onwards that FoE was the direct target of this project.

In the first email, Cormick’s correspondent attaches an article 

“debunking the rhetoric employed by FOE” [sic]. Subsequent correspondence discusses “risk messages sent by certain certain NGO’s” [sic]. By December, Cormick urges speed on the project, because “Friends of the Earth are ramping up their nano-sunscreen messages, we would need to get something decided on sooner rather than later.” In a 13 December email, a colleague advises him that FoE has produced a nano-free sunscreen guide, and in a Ministerial briefing in January, Cormick explains: “Friends of the Earth has been running a campaign against the use of nanoparticles in sunscreen for several years, increasing its efforts during the summer months.” He writes that the purpose of the survey is to investigate “whether scare stories about nanoscunscreens lead some people using less sunscreens and thus putting themselves at increased risks of melanomas… the findings of this study could be provocative amongst NGOs if it demonstrates that campaigns against nanoscunscreen are putting the public at risk.”

Under a soft light, Cormick et al‘s early reasoning, coded in Newspeak, might be seen as a quest to show whether people fearful of nano particles are less likely to use sunscreen. A harsher-light interpretation, informed by evidence from previous biotech sector campaigns, could be summarised as: if we produce evidence that people who fear nanoparticles are risking deadly skin cancer, we can paint those fearmongering NGOs as irresponsible. Particularly FoE’s nano-safety campaign. FoE is mentioned repeatedly as a target of Cormick et al‘s project in initial discussions and later ministerial briefings. One of the two US colleagues who corresponded with Cormick is known for his published stoushes with FoE.

The NGO-fearmongering-equals-deadly-consequences tactic has been used before. The biotech sector, in which Cormick has worked as a PR for many years (and which NETS still promotes), routinely portrays groups who campaign against GM industrial products as anti-science fearmongerers who are starving third-world children, ruining economic prosperity and depriving farmers of their livelihoods.
And when the nano-fearmongering-equals-deadly-cancer campaign first hatched, other bodies quickly got on-message. Last month The Australian reported:

Terry Slevin, chairman of the Cancer Council’s National Skin Cancer Committee, said Friends of the Earth was driving a “fear campaign” that risked scaring people away from sunscreens that were known to prevent cancer deaths.

Slevin, too, is in the FOI documents. In email exchanges, Ministerial SAC members ask Cormick why he hadn’t consulted them about the project during the last teleconference on 13 December. He responds that “the project didn’t exist yet”. The documents show the project was hatched in conversations before 11 November.

When Cormick commissions a company to put the survey online, the company advises him that preliminary responses show “while people believe it’s more risky to use sunscreens with nanoparticles, they would still rather use them than nothing at all.” He nonetheless stays on-message in his draft media releases.

When he first commissions the survey, he requests beefed-up sampling of male adolescents who, according to an attached article in the files, are the least-likely users of sunscreen. He later changes his mind, but Cormick is so eager to release his project in time to present it at an international nanotech conference that the final broad sampling method is changed late into the data collection, in order to speedily fulfill a sample quota of 1000. An Estimates hearing is later told the sampling was “random” and “representative”.

In the documents, Cormick applies to have the media release issued from Minister Greg Combet’s office, but the office rejects it as not “appropriate”. It is issued instead by NETS in consultation with other public bodies. Cormick’s email ‘to’ and ‘cc’ fields suggest he drafted them in consultation with Ego Pharmaceuticals (producers of suncreens). There is explicit consultation with the Australian Self Medication Industry (which represents non-prescription pharmacy products) — but the FOI documents released about exchanges with industry bodies are heavily redacted and incomplete. FoE has requested the complete exchange.

In Cormick’s email exchanges and later ministerial briefings, there are varying accounts of how the project originated. In some exchanges the survey is described as a joint research project with Cormick’s US colleagues. The Economics Legislation Committee is later told the survey arose from Cancer Council concerns. The departmental responses to questions by Senator Di Natale state that the project was devised to “assess the impacts of risk messages regarding nanotechnology and sunscreens on the public” and useful “for analysis to show what forms of sun screen protection respondents with concerns regarding nanoparticle risk may use.” The latter was not apparent in the releases or filtered data: conversely, after the survey, Cormick emails to his US colleague: “I think we’ve missed one issue, that is, if people have heard about nano sunscreen and don’t use any sunscreen as a result (13% of those) – do they turn to another form of skin protection instead?”

No doubt NETS and Cormick, a master communicator backed by a big public budget, will have the opportunity for a considered riposte to this story.

Disclosure: Katherine Wilson has worked with Gene Ethics, one of NETS’ key stakeholders, and she has also accepted  commissioned work for a biotechnology company in which her family owns shares.

This article originally appeared in two parts in New Matilda.