The precautionary principle: a rational response to complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity

October 3, 2003

Brussels, 02 Oct 2003

Precautionary principle expert Professor Ortwin Renn told participants in a lunch debate on 1 October that policy makers and scientists should use one of five risk management regimes to deal with scientific risk.

Speaking in the European Parliament at an event organised by AllChemE, Europe's chemistry and chemical engineering alliance, Professor Renn presented the results of EU funded research on the precautionary principle, a topic that has been the subject of debate since the publication of a Commission communication on the concept in the year 2000.

In the communication, the precautionary principle is described as applicable 'where preliminary objective scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen for the Community.'

However, it is no easy task for policy-makers to decide what degree of precaution is necessary, as highlighted by Professor Renn: 'The general dilemma for policy makers is that if they rely on what the general public accept as risks, they will allow for a higher risk than they would do otherwise. But if they rely on those who have researched and calculated the risk, they will lose public support.'

Five risk management regimes should be applied according to the degree and type of risk, said Professor Renn. Sticking to these guidelines will ensure a degree of consistency, he claimed.

Routine risk management should be employed when dealing with mundane risks, while risk-based management is more appropriate for complex and sophisticated risks where a high degree of modelling may be necessary (for example, industrial plants with hazardous material, infectious diseases). When a risk involves a high level of uncertainty (new epidemics, green biotechnology, BSE), precaution-based management is desirable, and where the risk is highly controversial (genetic engineering, biochips for human implementation), policy makers should turn to discourse-based management. Finally, when dealing with eminent danger, 'prevention' was described by Professor Renn as being the correct approach.

Professor Renn also underlined that the reason for a perceived risk should dictate the strategy employed to assess it. Risks can be divided into three broad categories, he claimed: those caused by complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. Complexity can lead to risk when the cause and effect are not immediately visible, while uncertainty caused by varying results, errors and ignorance also leads to the perception of risk. Ambiguity, meanwhile, 'is not about the unintended, but the intended result,' said Professor Renn. He cited the debate on stem cell research as an example, and claimed that 'it's not about not knowing; it's a moral, ethical issue.'

French MEP Béatrice Patrie, the event's host, claimed that an increased awareness of the risks of science has developed among Europe's citizens in the light of BSE and the GMO debate, among other issues. But does concern from the general public really indicate a lack of certainty, or a lack of confidence in the work of scientists?

Professor Renn responded to this question by claiming that public confidence can be increased in three ways: increased transparency, two-way communication and participation.

'Scientists often fear that what they are doing is so complex that no-one would be interested. This leads to a lack of trust,' said Professor Renn. Referring to dialogue, he called on scientists to focus on the consequences of research - what society considers it wants and needs to know - and not to get bogged down in technical detail. On participation, Professor Renn recommended that politicians and researchers involve the public in difficult decisions, for example how they would like to see waste disposed. He referred to German research where members of the public were asked to make such a decision. 'Once they were aware of all the issues involved and had to themselves make trade-offs, they made the same decisions as their elected representatives. When they're not involved, any trade-off is unacceptable. We should trust the citizens to make sensible decisions,' concluded Professor Renn. To see the Commission's communication on the precautionary principle, please visit: http:///europa.eu.int/eur-lex/en/com/cnc/ 2000/com2000_0001en01.pdf

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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