Chapter 8: Of fear and prudence: precaution through better regulation and innovation
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Chapter 8 discusses the regulation of the precautionary approach at EU level, with a particular focus on the role that the innovation principle plays – or could play – in this regard. The precautionary principle divides commentators. Some see it as a pointless and potentially dangerous principle that hinders progress, while others believe that it helps protect human health and the environment from complex hazards. In this context, industry groups, in 2015, proposed an innovation principle to prevent the precautionary principle from halting innovation. The precautionary principle enables decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence on an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high. It is a way of addressing scientific uncertainty, which may arise in a variety of situations: complexity (systemic and complex problems, where the probability of outcomes is unknown), ambiguity (contested framings and diverging values, where the outcomes are unknown), and ignorance (unanticipated effects, where the unknowns are unknown). It is particularly relevant in light of the fact that scientific studies are designed to minimize false negatives and that past cases have shown that adverse effects on environment and health often turn out to be more diversified and extensive than initially anticipated. In case of scientific uncertainty, policymakers may rely on information from stakeholders and/or science–policy interfaces, which may be conflicting. A decision to apply the precautionary principle in a legislative process needs to assess the seriousness and irreversibility of the threat and will ultimately be based on the values of the decision-makers. Cases where the precautionary principle has been applied include climate change, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), declining bee populations and asbestos. Cases where the precautionary principle could potentially be applied – as a result of scientific uncertainty, high stakes and possibly irreversible outcomes – include certain aspects relating to pesticides and nanomaterials. Over the past decade, the European Union has, in order to respond to scientific uncertainty and the need for innovation, used the concept of ‘responsible research and innovation’, now a cross-cutting theme in the Horizon 2020 framework for research and innovation. Precaution and innovation can go hand in hand if the precautionary principle promotes a diversity of technologies, allowing it to keep options open and to increase the resilience of our societies.

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