Brussels, 11 January 2002
A prominent European scientist has said that the use of the precautionary principle in health and environmental decision-making can boost innovation and stimulate better science.
The precautionary principle, enshrined in the European Union Treaty, governs decision-making in uncertain situations, where both inaction and regulatory measures could carry large costs.
Commenting on a new European Environment Agency (EEA) report, 'Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896 - 2000,' Professor Poul Harremoës of the Technical University of Denmark said: 'The use of the precautionary principle can bring benefits beyond the reduction of health and environmental impacts, stimulating both more innovation, via technological diversity and flexibility, and better science.'
Professor Harremoës, who chaired the report's editorial committee, warned, however, that 'over-precaution can also be expensive, in terms of lost opportunities for innovation and lost lines of scientific enquiry.
'If more account is taken - scientifically, politically and economically - of a richer body of information from more diverse sources, then society may be considerably more successful at achieving a better balance between innovations and their hazards in the future,' he explained.
The EEA report examines the role of the precautionary principle in addressing public health and environmental hazards in Europe and North America over the last 100 years. The case studies in the report range from the BSE or 'mad cow' crisis to the depletion of the ozone layer through the use of CFCs.
The report has drawn up 12 'late lessons' which can be drawn from the case studies. These include the need to provide adequate long-term environmental and health monitoring and research into early warnings and to identify and reduce gaps in scientific knowledge. The report also says there is a need to avoid 'paralysis by analysis' by acting to reduce potential harm where there are grounds for concern.
The EEA's Executive Director, Domingo Jiménez-Beltran, said: 'Our central conclusion is that the very difficult task of maximising innovation whilst minimising hazards to people and their environments could be undertaken more successfully in future if the 12 'late lessons' drawn from the histories of the hazards studied in this report were heeded.'
Professor Harremoës said that although 'none of the lessons would themselves remove the dilemmas of decision-making under situations of uncertainty and high stakes...they would at least increase the chances of anticipating costly impacts, of achieving a better balance between the pros and cons of technological innovations and of minimising the costs of unpleasant surprises.'
The EEA says the report may help to improve understanding between Europe and the USA on the use of the precautionary principle in policy decisions, where the issue has caused friction, such as in disputes over the safety of genetically modified food and synthetic hormones in beef.
The report can be downloaded from the EEA web site at: