Australian government public information on nanotechnology has had a bias in favour of promoting the technology, an independent review has found.
Science and society experts say the findings are a symptom of poor technology and innovation policy in Australia.
An independent review commissioned by the department of industry has found public awareness and engagement activities it ran between 2007-2011, "have not always been effective and balanced".
The review completed in 2012 but released just last week, assessed materials, some of which are still in circulation at the time of writing.
The materials were produced by the now de-funded National Enabling Technologies Strategy Public Awareness Community Engagement (NETS-PACE) program, which was charged with providing "balanced and factual information on enabling technologies to allow the public to make more informed choices".
The reviewers looked at possible "bias, incompleteness or inaccuracy" following concerns raised by a group of non-governmental organisations in April 2010.
"Some of the items make only brief reference to scientific research and public concerns about potential health and environment risks. There is little in the materials about ethical, cultural or privacy issues," said the reviewers, Toss Gascoigne from the Australian Science Communicators, and Dr Karen Cronin from the Asia-Pacific Science and Technology Studies Network.
Among other things, the review identified problems with balance in a nanotechnology and foods fact sheet, public forums (that it said had speakers mainly from the nanotech sector), and modules for high school teaching (that it said neglected to mention the potential risks of carbon nanotubes).
An Avant Card booklet, produced in collaboration with CSIRO in 2009, called 'Does size really matter' "appears to read as a marketing communication text and has a tone of promotion and reassurance", according to the review.
"A dozen or so outcomes are described in positive terms, with no reservations or cautions about possible unintended consequences or side effects."
As part of the review process, a departmental stakeholder committee involving industry and NGOs last year advised that most of the materials reviewed needed to be updated or removed before further distribution, due to bias, omissions, inaccuracies or misleading information.
The review also assessed NETS-PACE's aim of providing "opportunities for diverse members of the public to engage in discussions on enabling technologies".
It found a series of events called "nanodialogues" lacked fairness and transparency and used "well known marketing methods" to generate enthusiasm and support for the technology.
"Our observation is that these events were aimed primarily at anticipating and managing stakeholder responses rather than at dialogue. The expertise used was based more in marketing and public relations than in public engagement," said the review.
Public engagement consultant, Dr Wendy Russell, who was employed by the department of industry in 2010 says there is a tendency to think that public awareness and engagement means just providing the public with technical facts about new technologies.
But, she says, it's not that simple, and to achieve balance a diversity of both lay and expert views need to be taken on board.
"Most experts are positioned in some way that influences their perspective," says Russell.
"Particularly where there's uncertainty, the question of acceptable risk is not a technical question. It's not objective, because it's based on a certain amount of speculation, but also based on balancing risk and benefit."
"And the assessment of benefit is very much connected to people's perspective on the contributions that the technology might make. And that's where I think bringing in a range of perspectives, including critical ones is important."
Russell developed a new set of ground-rules for the department called Science and Technology Engagement Pathways (STEP), to ensure a diversity of voices, including critical ones, were included in the future, and that these fed into policy-making.
At this stage it is unclear what will happen to STEP since the NETS-PACE program ended in June this year.
'Poor technology policy'
Like Russell, science and society expert Dr Matthew Kearnes of the University of New South Wales believes the findings of the review are a symptom of a larger problem.
"We do technology policy poorly. Technology policy has been replaced by technology promotion," he says. "Good policy in my book is about having multiple inputs into the policy-making process."
Kearnes says it is important to build on initiatives such as STEP and to ensure the input to policy it can facilitate occurs early on in the innovation process.
"We tend to do all of our public engagement and awareness raising after the technologies have really developed," says Kearnes.
"That's too late because by that stage the process of technological development is pretty well locked in."
In a response, also released online last week, the department of industry points to the reviewers' comments that "problems with balance have receded as the program has matured".
The statement adds "the Department will update or amend materials where possible and appropriate."
But some are critical that many of the materials in questions are still circulating and are concerned at the time taken so far to respond to concerns about bias first raised in 2010.
"We were expecting a response from the government in January," says Louise Sales of Friends of the Earth's Nanotechnology Project.
Kearnes agrees "questions need to be asked" about why the process has taken so long.
"It seems striking to me that the review has taken such a long time to see the light of day," he says.
Fonte: ABC Science