Perspectives and Prospects
Edited by Elizabeth Fisher, Judith Jones and René von Schomberg
Chapter 3: The Role of Science and Precaution in Environmental and Public Health Policy
3. The role of science and precaution in environmental and public health policy1 Joel Tickner and David Kriebel The precautionary principle has often been portrayed as contrary to the tenets of sound science and inconsistent with the norms of ‘science-based’ decision making (Morris, 2000; Holm and Harris, 1999). Others view it as simply a management principle applied only after ‘objective’ scientiﬁc inquiry (European Commission, 2000). We believe that these critiques are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of environmental science2 and its role in policy. Most pressing environmental crises share a fundamental characteristic: they appear to arise from disruptions of natural systems or cycles, the behaviour of which is only partially understood. Global warming, endocrine disruption, ecological and health risks from genetically modiﬁed organisms and environmental breast cancer risks, are hazards about which there remains a great deal of uncertainty. We draw two conclusions from this problem of uncertainty: ﬁrst, more scientiﬁc research is greatly needed to ﬁll the gaps in our knowledge. Second, while waiting for more complete understanding, we must ﬁnd ways to make decisions that are based on the best available science, while acknowledging the uncertainties that remain. We believe, therefore, that there is no contradiction between good science and precautionary action. The purpose of this chapter is to examine the precautionary principle and its relationship to science, as well as the barriers to science playing a more protective role in characterizing risks and developing solutions. We examine this relationship from the perspective of United...
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