PureInsight | January 1, 2001
The New Uncertainty Principle
For complex environmental issues, science learns to take a backseat to political precaution
Observe before you project yourself on a parabolic trajectory. The weight of 28.35 grams of prevention is worth 454 grams of cure. Science certainly has much to say on taking precautions. But for the enormously complex and serious problems that now face the world--global warming, loss of biodiversity, toxins in the environment--science doesn't have all the answers, and traditional risk assessment and management may not be up to the job. Indeed, given the scope of such problems, they may never be.
Given the uncertainty, some politicians and activists are insisting on caution first, science second. Although there is no consensus definition of what is termed the precautionary principle, one oft-mentioned statement, from the so-called Wingspread conference in Racine, Wis., in 1998 sums it up: '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.'
In other words, actions taken to protect the environment and human health take precedence. Therefore, some advocates say, governments should immediately ban the planting of genetically modified crops, even though science can't yet say definitively whether they are a danger to the environment or to consumers.
This and other arguments surfaced at a recent conference on the precautionary principle at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, which drew more than 200 people from governments, industry, and research institutions of several countries. The participants grappled with the meaning and consequences of the principle, especially as it relates to biotechnology. 'Governments everywhere are confronted with the need to make decisions in the face of ignorance,' pointed out Konrad von Moltke, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, 'and this dilemma is growing.'
Critics asserted that the principle's definition and goals are vague, leaving its application dependent on the regulators in charge at the moment. All it does, they alleged, is stifle trade and limit innovation. 'If someone had evaluated the risk of fire right after it was invented,' remarked Julian Morris of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, 'they may well have decided to eat their food raw.'
A matter of law in Germany and Sweden, the precautionary principle may soon guide the policy of all of Europe: last February the European Commission outlined when and how it intends to use the precautionary principle. Increasingly, the principle is finding its way into international agreements. It was incorporated for the first time in a fully fledged international treaty last January--namely, the United Nations Biosafety Protocol regulating trade in genetically modified products. Gradually it has begun to work its way into U.S. policy. In an October speech at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman averred that 'policymakers need to take a precautionary approach to environmental protection.... We must acknowledge that uncertainty is inherent in managing natural resources, recognize it is usually easier to prevent environmental damage than to repair it later, and shift the burden of proof away from those advocating protection toward those proposing an action that may be harmful.'
Although the U.S. has taken such an approach for years--the 1958 Delaney Clause overseeing pesticide residues in food, for instance, and requirements for environmental impact statements--the more stringent requirements of the precautionary principle have not generally been welcome. During negotiations of the Biosafety Protocol in Montreal, Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri criticized the incorporation of the principle, writing in a letter to President Bill Clinton that it 'would, in effect, endorse the idea of making nonscience-based decisions about U.S. farm exports.'
Is the precautionary principle consistent with science, which after all can never prove a negative? 'A lot of scientists get very frustrated with consumer groups, who want absolute confidence that transgenic crops are going to be absolutely safe,' says Allison A. Snow, an ecologist at Ohio State University. 'We don't scrutinize regular crops, and a lot of inventions, that carefully.'
Others don't see the precautionary principle as antithetical to the rigorous approach of science. 'The way I usually think about it is that the precautionary principle actually shines a bright light on science,' states Ted Schettler, science director for the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN), a consortium of environmental groups that is a leading proponent of the principle in North America. 'We're talking about enormously complex interactions among a number of systems. Now we're starting to think that some of these things are probably unknowable and indeterminate,' he says, adding that 'the precautionary principle doesn't tell you what to do, but it does tell you [what] to look at.'
The precautionary principle requires a different kind of science, maintains Carolyn Raffensperger, SEHN's executive director. 'Science has been commodified. What we've created in the last 10 or 15 years is a science that has a goal of global economic competitiveness.' As examples, Raffensperger cites a relative lack of National Institutes of Healthspending on allergenicity and the environmental consequences of biotechnology, compared with funding for the development of transgenic products and cancer medicines. 'Our public dollars go toward developing more drugs to treat cancer rather than doing some of the things necessary to prevent cancer,' she complains.
For science to evolve along the lines envisioned by Raffensperger, researchers will have to develop a broader base of skills to handle the multifaceted data from complicated problems. National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell has been a strong proponent of the type of interdisciplinary work required to illuminate the complex scientific issues of today. The NSF specifically designed the Biocomplexity in the Environment Initiative in 1999 to address interacting systems such as global warming, human impacts on the environment, and biodiversity. Outlays have grown from an initial $25.7 million to $75 million for 2001.
Raffensperger also thinks the precautionary principle will require researchers to raise their social consciousness. 'We need a sense of the public good' among scientists, she says. 'I'm a lawyer, obligated to do public service. What if scientists shared that same obligation to use their skills for the good, pro bono? We think the precautionary principle invites us to put ethics back into science.'
In fact, Jane Lubchenco called for just such a reorientation in her presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1997. 'Urgent and unprecedented environmental and social changes challenge scientists to define a new social contract,' she said, 'a commitment on the part of all scientists to devote their energies and talents to the most pressing problems of the day, in proportion to their importance, in exchange for public funding.' Raffensperger notes that the U.S. has mobilized science in this way in the past with programs on infectious diseases and national defense, such as the Manhattan Project.
What is more, scientists whose work butts up against the precautionary principle will have 'to do a very good job of expressing the uncertainty in their information,' points out William W. Fox, Jr., director of science and technology for the National Marine Fisheries Service. This is difficult for some scientists, Fox notes, particularly in fisheries science, where uncertainty limits can be quite large. 'You can't always collect data exactly like your statistical model dictates, so there's a bit of experience involved, not something that can be repeated by another scientist. It's not really science; it's like an artist doing it--so a large part of your scientific advice comes from art,' he comments.
Those wide limits are the crux of the issue, the point at which proponents of the precautionary principle say decisions should be taken from the realm of science and into politics. 'The precautionary principle is no longer an academic debate,' Raffensperger stated at the Harvard conference. 'It is in the hands of the people,' as displayed, she argued, by demonstrations against economic globalization, seen most violently in Seattle at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization. 'This is [about] how they want to live their lives.'