Emerging technologies and corporate control

Regulation has all too often lagged behind technology development and commercialisation. Often new innovations aren’t banned or regulated until after they have been proven to be harmful – and even then corporations frequently and fiercely resist regulation. DDT, thalidomide, asbestos, cane toads are all classic examples of what can go wrong when innovation is driven by corporate interests, the precautionary principle is not applied, and new innovations are launched before they are determined to be safe. A suite of powerful new emerging technologies means that the stakes of such uncontrolled experiments are now significantly higher. The unexpected consequences of some of these technologies could have global ramifications. Many of the issues that Friends of the Earth works on (e.g. climate, coal seam gas, nanotechnology and nuclear) are about challenging technologies that implicity rely on the idea that limitless economic growth is somehow possible and desirable. In order to resist dangerous, unsustainable and unjust technologies and ensure that useful technologies are used equitably we think it is important to shed light on the drivers of technology. This includes the extent to which technological innovation is driven by commercial and military interests and how governments’ further these interests through the funding and promotion of certain technologies. It is for these reasons that Friends of the Earth’s Nanotechnology Project has now become the Emerging Tech Project. In addition to continuing work on nanotechnology, we will begin working on other emerging technologies such as synthetic biology and geoengineering. This change is important for a number of reasons. It means that there will now be an environmental NGO in Australia actively working on these issues. It recognises that many of these technologies are converging in disturbing and risky ways. And it enables us to look more broadly at the structural, political and commercial drivers that these technologies have in common. This is critical. These new technologies have unprecedented global reach and potential impacts at a time when the unwillingness of governments to regulate is also unprecedented. If we don’t deal with the structural failings that underpin the manner in which technologies are being developed and rolled out, we will fail to affect the kind of change that is needed. The Emerging Tech Project will articulate, expose and we hope change the current trajectory that these technologies are on. This edition of
Chain Reaction is in part the beginning of that process. It contains articles from academics, thinkers and activists from all over the world examining emerging technologies in the context of corporate influence over both science and governments. The first part of Chain Reaction explains two of the most worrying emerging technologies – synthetic biology (Jim Thomas) and geoengineering (Clive Hamilton). These technologies are then placed in the context of a history of failures by governments to respond to clear and early warnings of risks associated with a number of technologies (Steffen Foss Hansen). Hansen’s piece demonstrates that there are very few cases where precaution resulted in regulation of non-existent risks, a claim often made by industry and governments. Part 2 explores the corruption of science. Beginning in the 1980s, the ALP began the process of privatising science – a process that has continued to the present. This includes reducing public funding of science; promoting private partnerships with universities; further strengthening the IP system; commodifying knowledge and encouraging entrepreneurial universities and staff. As Philip Mirowski documents in his 2011 book Science Mart, these steps amongst others have resulted in an unprecedented level of corporate control over science and technology at universities. That relationship is now deeply entrenched and utilises a host of mechanisms − including funding of universities, departments and research; public private partnerships; patents and other forms of IP; trade secret regulation; non-disclosure agreements and publication control; technology transfer agreements; hiring of academics as consultants; spin-off companies; and select access to materials. Universities and scientists give a level of credibility to new technologies that corporate interests can’t. They can insulate developments driven by commercial interests from public distrust. They provide respectability, a suggestion of care and safety in the development of the technology, and of objectivity that corporations can’t achieve on their own. At the same time, as Egilman and Bohme outline, there is a significant body of evidence that corporate funding can have major impacts on what research is conducted, how studies are undertaken, the analysis of data and the conclusions reached. As Tombs and Whyte explain, censorship and self-censorship also become naturalised by scientists as they embrace ‘entrepreneurial’ science. CSIRO plant industries, for example, has entered into a number of ‘strategic partnerships’ with biotech companies. These agreements are secret and exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act, so the only way we can evaluate the impacts of these relationships is to look at the outcomes. As Kath Wilson recounts, Plant Industries fired the only scientist in the department who was openly critical of genetically modified (GM) crops. Since entering into these relationships Plant Industries have been die-hard advocates for GM. When one looks at the amount of corporate money pouring into elite universities, as Kristen Lyons does in her piece on the University of Queensland, the scale of the problem becomes clear. Whole industry funded departments are dedicated to developing commercial technologies − while the conflicts of interest and reputational risks are ignored. Our article on #Crazytech takes a somewhat lighter look at the crazier ideas that technophiles are creating and promoting. The corruption of science has occurred in Australia because successive governments have allowed it to happen. How corporate interests have corrupted government is addressed in Part 3. Some of the measures are well known, such as campaign financing; the revolving doors between industry and government that Kath Wilson exposes; intense and frequent lobbying pressure; and Ministerial trips, dinners and speaking engagements at corporate functions. Mark Diesendorf outlines just how successful such techniques have been for the fossil fuel industry in limiting the growth of the renewable energy industry. However, there are much deeper systemic problems with the way government regulates new technologies. These include the institutionalised belief that social progress is the same thing as continuous technological advancement; that it is somehow possible to achieve limitless growth; and that technology is neutral rather than being subject to the social, political and economic conditions in which it is developed and marketed. These deeply held beliefs have led to government viewing critical regulation to protect human health and the environment as ‘red tape’ and ‘barriers to innovation’. Tager highlights this in a case study of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), and shows an agency that appears to be acting on behalf of corporate interests rather than the public. Miller shows how governments seek to manipulate public opinion through public engagement processes rather than engaging in legitimate dialogue about how new technologies should form part of our future. International mechanisms are also used to further corporate ends – including free trade agreements; agreements relating to the movement of capital and goods; secret tribunals to hear disputes between parties; and the elimination of tariffs that may protect workers or the environment. These international instruments can be used to override the legislation of individual countries. As Rimmer discusses, governments have allowed privately held patents to become a de facto form of ‘governance’ of geoengineering. Finally there is a piece that looks at how techno-utopian narratives are used to further corporate objectives. As we come to grips with the ways in which emerging technologies reflect deeper structural issues with privatised science, corporate immunity from regulation and government failure to represent the public interest, we can begin to grapple with ways to change these structures. There are no simple solutions, but there are solutions. One of the first and critical steps in reversing these trends within emerging technologies is for greater public engagement in these issues. And so, this edition of Chain Reaction is both an expose of a problem that needs far more serious treatment than it has received to date, but also an invitation to you to help find and implement these solutions.
Jeremy Tager and Louise Sales are campaigners with Friends of the Earth’s Emerging Tech Project.  


Stupid technologies we don't need..... Crazytech
And that could destroy life on Earth.