The Nano-Suncreen Wars

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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 media 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 (pdf) says "showed that about 17 per cent 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, not 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.

NETS have fielded plenty of complaints alleging this was a sham. Early in NETS’ development, 12 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, TAI 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."

(Watch the sock-puppet video, titled "Nano nano, what a wonderful surprise", here. It’s not produced by NETS but it is hosted on their website.)

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) Minister 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.

All she or others could say was that SAC members could not take their mounting grievances outside the Department, as they were bound by confidentiality agreements.

To add insult to injury, some were shocked at the eleventh hour to learn of the 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? Craig 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"?

Part two of this report will be published tomorrow. 

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. 

New Matilda

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