The Precautionary Principle in Environmental Science. (Commentaries)

Article excerpt

Environmental scientists play a key role in society's responses to environmental problems, and many of the studies they perform are intended ultimately to affect policy. The precautionary principle, proposed as a new guideline in environmental decision making, has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making. In this paper we examine the implications of the precautionary principle for environmental scientists, whose work often involves studying highly complex, poorly understood systems, while at the same time facing conflicting pressures from those who seek to balance economic growth and environmental protection. In this complicated and contested terrain, it is useful to examine the methodologies of science and to consider ways that, without compromising integrity and objectivity, research can be more or less helpful to those who would act with precaution. We argue that a shift to more precautionary policies creates opportunities and challenges for scientists to think differently about the ways they conduct studies and communicate results. There is a complicated feedback relation between the discoveries of science and the setting of policy. While maintaining their objectivity and focus on understanding the world, environmental scientists should be aware of the policy uses of their work and of their social responsibility to do science that protects human health and the environment. The precautionary principle highlights this tight, challenging linkage between science and policy. Key words: environmental science, foresight, planning, precaution, risk assessment, science policy. Environ Health Perspect 109:871-876 (2001). [Online 15 August 2001]

http://ehpnet1.niehs.nih.gov/docs/2001/109p871-876kriebel/abstract.html

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There are few pressing social issues that depend as heavily on scientific information as do environmental problems. Most scientists and policy makers agree on the importance of science in environmental policy debates, even when they can agree on almost nothing else about the health of the ecosphere. Thus, environmental scientists play a key role in society's responses to environmental problems, and many of the studies performed by environmental scientists are intended ultimately to affect policy. The precautionary principle has been proposed as a new guideline in making environmental policy (1,2). In this paper we examine the implications of the precautionary principle for environmental scientists. Specific objectives are to define the precautionary principle and illustrate it through three brief examples; identify aspects of conventional science that may inhibit precautionary policies; identify new directions for scientific research that would better inform precautionary policies; and promote dialogue among environmental scientists about the usefulness and potential applications of the precautionary principle.

Definition of the Precautionary Principle

A 1998 consensus statement characterized the precautionary principle this way: "when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically" (3). The statement went on to list four central components of the principle: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making.

The term "precautionary principle" came into English as a translation of the German word Vorsorgeprinzip. An alternative translation might have been "foresight principle," which has the advantage of emphasizing anticipatory action--a positive, active idea rather than precaution, which to many sounds reactive and even negative. …