Australia's nanotechnology public engagement ineffective and biased

Kristen Lyons and James Whelan

Nanotechnologies are likely to radically transform a range of industries and introduce broad scale social, environmental, health and other impacts. The general public has a right to access information about these impacts and issues, and to provide input into shaping nanotechnology policy and practice.

Indeed, public input into science and technology policy and decision-making is now widely recognised as part and parcel of a healthy and functioning democracy (Tucker, 2011). Deliberative processes – that engage the public, along with governments and corporations – provide an opportunity to guide research, development, commercialisation and regulation of nanotechnologies in ways that are broadly publicly acceptable.

In recent years, and as part of the deliberative turn in western democracies, there has been a groundswell in nano-public engagement activities (see for example Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, 2004; Macnaghten et al. 2005; Powell and Colin, 2008). Governments around the world, including in the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and Australia, have implemented a range of nano-public engagement activities, including panels, citizen juries, citizen schools, nanodialogues, nano cafés and formal inquiries. Yet despite the growing enthusiasm for these activities – from all sides of politics and across science communities – we agree with the recent call by Craig Cormick from the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (2012) that they have had little impact in shaping policy. Rather, public engagement frequently appears as a set of tools to manage public dissent, thereby clearing the path for unfettered nano-industry expansion. This is evident in Australia's public engagement activities, which Cormick has been commissioned to oversee on behalf of the Australian Government for some years.

The Australian Government has committed A$9.4 million between 2010 and 2014 for public engagement as part of its National Enabling Technologies Strategy (NETS) (DISSR, 2010). Our analysis of a broad sample of NETS public engagement activities reveal a number of constraints that limit both the scope and effectiveness of these activities, and point to a strong pro-industry bias. In recognition of the seriousness of this bias, in 2011 the NETS Advisory Council requested an independent review of public engagement materials produced and funded as part of the NETS.

Our analysis reveals many factors that demonstrate ineffectiveness and bias in the NETS' public engagement activities.

Firstly, NETS public engagement activities have excluded certain key stakeholders, most notably those who expressed strong opposition to the policy and strategic directions proposed by the Government. This is despite a stated commitment to include a diversity of stakeholders in engagement activities so as to ensure broad representation (DISSR, 2009).

This was plainly evident during the Federal Government's Multi-stakeholder Engagement Workshop series – the cornerstone program implemented to devise a national community engagement framework. The exclusion of dissenting voices has elicited strong responses from civil society organisations, academics and union groups in Australia. The National Toxics Network, for example, labelled NETS community engagement as "ad hoc and inequitable", and Greenpeace Australia Pacific described engagement activities as "inadequate to present the Government with the full spectrum of public interest group views at this critical time." Some Federal Government representatives also acknowledged these concerns.

Secondly, some engagement activities have also been managed so as to champion the advance of nano-applications and the nano-industries. Our analysis of all web-based materials published by the Federal Government on their 'TechNYou' website (the Federal Government's web-based Information and Outreach Service), for example, demonstrated the privileging of positive claims relating to environmental, health and manufacturing benefits, the use of positive and upbeat language, and the under-statement and marginalisation of criticisms and concerns, and undermining of critical stakeholders (see for instance Major, 2009; 2010). At the same time, consumer concerns were de-emphasised, with one blog entry on the topic of nano-food claiming: "I think you will find that people's suspicions (about nano-food) disappear, except for the conspiracy theorists". Such statements demonstrate the moderator's disconnect with national attitudinal surveys, which consistently demonstrate Australians' growing opposition to nano food production and processing applications, as well as the broadly accepted mandate that consumers have a right to know what they are eating (MARS, 2009; 2011).

These web-based engagement activities demonstrate a 'deficit approach'; whereby engagement is utilised to educate the public so as to allay their concerns, thereby assisting to build broad public support and acceptance for new technologies. This constrains Australians from debating topics of substantial significance, including the diversity of social, ethical, environmental and other challenges associated with the expanding nano-industries.

Thirdly, the Australia Government has been inconsistent and unclear about the purpose and likely outcomes of engagement activities. This has left some participants frustrated and aggrieved about what might be expected as a result of time invested in engagement activities. Participants at NETS workshops, for example, have made repeated called for the intentions of NETS nano-engagement activities to be made explicit.

Despite these repeated calls for transparency, the links – if any – between engagement and policy remain shrouded in secrecy and subterfuge. The outcome of this is to place the credibility of the future nano industries at risk; by leaving nano research, development and commercialisation to sail adrift from community members' hopes and aspirations, as well as fears and concerns, related to new technologies.

Cormick (2012) claims "there is no simple best way to engage with the public … other than to engage in as many different ways, and with as many different types of audiences, as possible". Yet this random scattergun approach has delivered ineffective and biased processes, which have failed to shape policy outcomes.

Instead of simply investing broadly in engagement activities, there are internationally recognised best practice principles for public engagement that could inform strategic decision-making in nano public engagement and policymaking. These principles include:

  1. Engagement activities that are open and inclusive of a diverse range of interests and perspectives;
  2. Engagement occurring 'upstream', while trajectories for the development of nanotechnologies remain negotiable, and on topics of substantial significance;
  3. Engagement activities being transparently linked to policy and regulation;
  4. Engagement activities being independently and continuously evaluated, and conducted with impartial and expert facilitation, and
  5. Engagement activities being adequately funded and resourced across the entire policy cycle (see Lyons and Whelan 2010 for a detailed literature review).

Adoption of best practice principles may assist the Australian Government (and Governments in other parts of the world) to reconcile the tension between stated commitments to nano public engagement to develop policies and determine development trajectories (Australian Government, 2009), and engagement practices that fall well short of these ideals. The integration of these principles may enable engagement activities to become part of democratic policy making processes, rather than ineffective tools that assist in the rollout of new technologies.

The current critique of nano public engagement activities in Australia − including concerns raised by civil society, academics and the NETS own Advisory Council – point to the urgent need to re-think contemporary engagement approaches. Adoption of best practice principles is a good start.

References

          Australian Government. (2009) Powering Ideas: An Innovation Agenda for the 21st Century, Canberra.

          Cormick, C. (2012) The Complexity of Public Engagement – Correspondence Nature Nanotechnology, 7, Feb, 77-78.

          Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR). (2010) National Enabling Technologies Strategy (NETS) Annual Report 2009-2010. Australian Government, Canberra.

          Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR). (2009) National Enabling Technologies Strategy, Australian Government, Canberra.

          Lyons K. and Whelan, J. (2010) Community engagement to facilitate, legitimise and accelerate the advancement of nanotechnologies in Australia. NanoEthics, 4, 1, 53-66.

          Macnaghten, P. Kearnes, M. and Wynne, B. (2005) Nanotechnology, governance and public deliberation: what role for the social sciences? Science Communication 27, 268-291.

          Major, J. (2010) Dejection and our right to engage with controversial science. TechNyou, Available: http://technyou.edu.au/2010/05/dejection-and-our-right-to-engage-with-co... (2 October, 2011).

          Major, J. (2011) Nano robots kill cancer… What the?, TechNyou, Available: <http://technyou.edu.au/2010/03/nano-robots-kill-cancer%E2%80%A6what-the/> (4 December, 2011).

          MARS. (2009) Australian Community Attitudes Held About Nanotechnology – Trends 2005 – 2007. June. Final Report. Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR).

          MARS. (2011) Australian Community Attitudes Held About Nanotechnology – Trends 2005 – 2011. August. Final Report. Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR).

          Powell, M. and Colin, M. (2008) Meaningful citizen engagement in science and technology. Science Communication 30, 1, 126-136.

          Tucker, K. (2011) A Basis for Democracy? A Great Year – 2011 In Review, 16-25.

          Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (RS/RAE). (2004) Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties, Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, London.

Dr Kristen Lyons is Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Science, University of Queensland. Dr James Whelan is a research fellow with the Centre for Policy Development and Director of the Change Agency.