Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Impact of Technology

By Ian Lowe

The government has abdicated its responsibility to assess the broad economic effects of new technologies.

Do we need a formal process to assess the likely future impacts of new technologies? A recent Melbourne workshop reviewed a framework that could be used for a comprehensive review. I was involved in developing the framework with Prof Alan Petersen of Monash University and Prof Susan Dodds of University of Tasmania.

The project, funded by the previous government’s National Enabling Technologies program, recognised that we usually do serious financial assessments of new technology but rarely consider the broader economic impacts, which can be considerable. The internet has seriously affected newspapers and retail trade, video streaming has almost destroyed video libraries, junk food chains have wiped out suburban milk bars, solar panels and wind turbines are closing down coal-fired power stations.

New technology can also have huge social impacts. Think of how the contraceptive pill dramatically expanded opportunities for women, or the wide-ranging positive and negative impacts of mobile phones on how we work and interact with other people.

Proponents of new technology have often overstated its benefits. Computers were going to give us the paperless office, television was going to be a powerful educational tool, and nuclear power was going to be cheap, clean and safe. Canadian expert Prof Tim Caulfield reminded the workshop that genetic advances have been trumpeted as being about to produce a “revolution” for more than 40 years, with almost identical cover stories in Time magazine in 1971, 1994 and 2003. More recently, we regularly hear enthusiastic promises of radical health improvements from stem cell research.

The current Australian government has abdicated its responsibility to assess new proposals in favour of a 19th century faith in market forces and the inherent benevolence of private corporations. But technical advances inevitably raise new questions.

For example, some applications of nanotechnology show essentially the same chemistry and biological impacts as bulk materials. However, a detailed study of nanomaterials in agriculture and veterinary medicine found that there are sometimes different effects when the smaller particle size leads to what is essentially colloidal behaviour.

So it is important to study all new applications on a case-by-case basis. That is a critical government responsibility.

Earlier this year, the Australian Academy of Science held its annual Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank on the related issue of transferring advances in stem cell science to clinical applications. While there is great pressure to allow promising new treatments, there is also concern to ensure that patients are not exposed to needless risk from unproven therapies.

In North America recently there was a well-publicised case of a former Canadian sports star who claimed to have benefited from treatment in a Mexican clinic. This led to public pressure for the treatment to be made more widely available. Regulators have been criticised for denying seriously ill patients radical new treatments, but there is an obvious responsibility to ensure safety and effectiveness before approval. Everybody remembers the case of thalidomide.

Despite the government’s attempts to close down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, that body has announced a $350 million package to support large-scale solar energy projects. This is a joint project with the Australian Renewable Energy Network, with the goal of making solar energy as cheap as wind power by 2020.

That is good news for consumers and the planet. It should also sound the death-knell to any prospect of new fossil fuel power stations in Australia.

Large-scale commercial solar power will be a significant new development, augmenting the domestic solar revolution. Australia now has a higher proportion of households with solar power than any other country. In South Australia, nearly 45% of owner-occupied dwellings have solar panels installed. A visiting energy market expert from the UK recently pointed out that “Australia is the cheapest place in the world to put solar on your roof”, attributing this to both technical improvements and competition between suppliers. Better battery technology is leading more householders to store the excess energy they generate during the day for use at night. There is an obvious incentive to use as much as possible of what they generate. Even with guaranteed feed-in tariffs, most consumers pay more for any power they buy than they receive for the excess they sell.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.