Brussels, 10 April 2002
The application of the precautionary principle in research should follow a three step procedure, according to Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, risk analysis, public debate and a political decision, with ultimate responsibility resting with politicians.
Speaking at the Free University of Brussels at the end of March, Mr Busquin addressed the question of whether or not the precautionary principle is incompatible with scientific and technological progress. If it is well understood and applied correctly, it is not at all, but if badly interpreted and applied in an inadequate manner, it is incontestably contradictory, said the Commissioner.
A common coherent vision is needed on the conditions for applying the precautionary principle, and this should involve the following according to Mr Busquin: scientific analysis of the degree of risk, proportionate measures which put risks and interest into perspective, comparisons of measures taken in different scenarios, the possibility to review measures taken in the light of further information and transparency.
Research, technology and innovation are linked with the precautionary principle at several levels, said Mr Busquin, adding that the relationship does not have to be antagonistic, but can be constructive. The Commissioner highlighted how research is necessary for applying the precautionary principle. By analysing and evaluating risks, it provides information on the potential risks associated with technology, such as mobile telephones, and risks completely independent of technology, associated with natural phenomena, such as global change or industrial practices.
Research is particularly necessary for adjusting measures taken in virtue of the precautionary principle and reducing uncertainty. Research on risks can even generate new discoveries and knowledge, said Mr Busquin, citing the example of research on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Mr Busquin emphasised the importance of distinguishing between proven or real risks, such as the risk of cancer for smokers or the risks of explosion in a chemical factory, and potential risks, such as health risks associated with the use of mobile telephones, or the possible risks to the environment and health from GMOs. A potential risk is a 'risk of risk,' said Mr Busquin.
The probability of risk is perceived differently, according to the type of risk, the Commissioner said. For example, risks related to voluntary actions, such as smoking or driving, often arouse less concern than factors beyond personal control, and particularly those affecting economic interests. He also raised concern that statistical reasoning, inevitable in the field of risk evaluation, is often done poorly by non-specialists. This should be tackled by awareness raising activities, aimed at both the public and decision makers.
For further information on Commissioner Busquin, please consult the following web address: http:///europa.eu.int/comm/commissioners /busquin/index_en.html