Unions, consumer and environment groups have greeted a new Australian government plan for handling controversial developments such as nanotechnology, with caution.
The National Enabling Technologies Strategy, released this week, allocates around $38 million over four years "to guide the safe development of new technologies such as nanotechnology and biotechnology."
"It's important for Australia to take advantage of new technologies as they arise," says Peter Chesworth, from the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.
"[But] it's very important that this isn't done to the exclusion of health, safety and the environment."
The new strategy will establish a Stakeholder Advisory Council to advise government.
"When it comes to issues such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, there is a diverse set of views out there. We want to set up this group to enable a broad range of views to be heard," says Chesworth.
Critics have welcomed the stakeholder council but are concerned about its role given it will only meet twice a year.
"You wonder therefore how fair dinkum are they about that group having a genuine input into this entire process," says Geoff Fary from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).
Georgia Miller of the Friends of the Earth Nanotechnology Project says the strategy does not state to whom the stakeholder council will report.
"It wasn't made clear to what extent its feedback is going to inform strategy development," she says.
Consumer group Choice says the strategy has some "good intentions", but wants to wait and see what happens.
"The government is saying they will consult stakeholders widely so we're hoping that's fully fledged engagement and not just telling us what they're doing," says Kate Norris of Choice.
Chesworth says the stakeholder council will report to the enabling technologies section of the industry department, which will then pass the advice onto the minister.
He says the decision to have twice-yearly meeting was to make sure meetings had a full agenda, but this schedule might be revisted.
The ACTU is worried about workers being exposed to unregulated nanomaterials, some of which scientists believe may act like asbestos fibres.
Fary says health issues have not been given enough prominence in the strategy.
"It's very gung-ho about Australia embracing these technologies," he says.
"The reference to researching their impacts on health and safety does tend to appear to be a bit of an afterthought."
But Professor Thomas Faunce of the Australian National University in Canberra described the strategy as a "balanced document".
"The government is on the right track," says Faunce, an ARC Future Fellow currently looking at nanotechnology and global health.
"It's important that the nanotechnology industry grow."
But Faunce says it will be important that the technology targets the national benefit, rather than short-term profits.
He wonders whether the stakeholder council might be able to help in this process.
Faunce says the strategy's allocation of $18.2 million to the National Measurement Institute will help improve scientists' ability to measure nanomaterials.
This is an important pre-requisite for setting standards for toxicity testing and regulation, he says.
But while experts argue over how best to measure nanomaterials and what size to classify as 'nano', critics say precautionary action should be taken before laborious toxicity tests are finalised.
"It's a case where the technology is running way ahead of the regulation," says Fary of the ACTU.
"We call for regulation because nanomaterials at nanosize behave differently to the parent material and we've called for them to be separately classified."
The call is supported by a 2008 NSW parliamentary inquiry and a report by the Royal Society in the UK.
"When you are dealing with people's health and people's lives, we believe that a precautionary approach to should be adopted," says Fary.
"We are not prepared to wait 30 years … to say 'aw gee, we got that wrong, didn't we.'"
But Chesworth emphasises the need for scientific evidence before action can be taken.
"There are many interpretations of what the precautionary principle is," he says.
"If there was toxicological evidence presented, I can't really see the government sitting on its hands."
Chesworth says regulators will deal with nanomaterials "on a case by case basis"
"But to say that all compounds or chemicals that are in a nano-form should be treated differently to the way they are in their bulk form is probably an over-simplification," he says.
Faunce says it's also important to weigh the benefits of a particular technology against possible risks.
For example, he says, the use of nano silver to stop smelly socks offers fairly "marginal" benefit to society as compared to the risk of it destroying nitrifying bacteria in sewage works.