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Stakeholders of the precautionary principle

30 July 2020
Precaution Innovation Regulations

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RECIPES - Stakeholders of the precautionary principe

New technologies, such as AI, nanotechnology and gene editing offer all kinds of opportunities for solving important societal issues. However, when there are suspicions that a new technology or substance could cause serious damage to health or the environment, precautions must be taken under European legislation. When there is no consensus or scientific certainty about the likelihood of these effects, the 'precautionary principle' serves as the basis for taking measures to ensure our safety and that of the environment. Think, for example, of restrictions on the authorisation of crop protection products. Different interests are at stake in putting the precautionary principle into practice. These have been mapped out by the Rathenau Instituut as part of the European RECIPES project.

In short:

  • When there is scientific uncertainty about the risks of a new development, the precautionary principle allows decision-makers to give the environment and public health priority over other (economic) interests.
  • When applying the precautionary principle, it is important to weigh up different interests, now and in the future.
  • In order to develop strategies that combine precaution with opportunities for innovation, insight into the stakes at play in applying the precautionary principle is important. This article is about these stakes.

The precautionary principle gives direction to what is right and fair in situations of scientific uncertainty, and how interests should be weighed up. However, the principle does not establish which measures are to be taken in which situations of scientific uncertainty.

This leads to different implementations of the principle in practice. For example, the safety of herbicide glyphosate will soon have to be reassessed by the European Commission, there is a European ban/moratorium on certain neonicotinoids used for insect control, and companies must be able to demonstrate scientifically that a GMO crop (genetically modified organism) is safe before they receive authorisation for it - and possibilities for authorisation also vary from country to country.

The question of how and when the principle should be implemented is a balancing act under uncertain circumstances. When putting the precautionary principle into practice, decision-makers make various considerations, such as: is the danger serious enough? Is there in fact scientific uncertainty? And which measures are proportionate to the prevention of potential damage? Decisions of this kind must be made carefully, because they can have far-reaching consequences for on the one hand the producers of the substance/technology, and on the other hand the potential victims of the associated risks, such as nature and European citizens.

Within this balancing exercise, we distinguish four stakeholder groups. Firstly, there are parties who formalize the precautionary principle in laws, rules and measures. Secondly, there are parties who implement the precautionary measures. Thirdly, there are parties who are directly affected by the way in which the precautionary principle is applied. Fourthly, there are parties indirectly affected. These four groups are explained below.

What does this mean for the development of strategies for implementing the precautionary principle?

The precautionary principle is an important general principle that has amongst others been implemented as a general principle in EU law. Its application has an effect on the safeguarding of human health and the environment ​​and innovation in a variety of ways. It aims to enable a response to uncertain serious risks that is appropriate and ‘acceptable’ to the society on which the risk is imposed. Our analysis demonstrates a complex array of forces and interests around the implementation of this principle. It is clear that it is not an easy task to take those into account who are affected by potential hazards in the long term, including those who cannot organize themselves into organizations or lobby groups that represent their interests.

Because RECIPES takes place in the middle of this dynamic and often political arena, co-creation and stakeholder involvement play an important and unique role within the project. The partners of the consortium come from different European countries and have different (academic) backgrounds. Different interest groups are represented in the advisory board of the project. Above all, we involve stakeholders in the different steps of our methodology.

For example, a dialogue with citizens was held on the subject, a media analysis of several European newspapers was carried out, and scenario workshops were held with a wide range of stakeholders. Ultimately, we are working towards discussions with policymakers on strategies that inherently link the precautionary principle to opportunities for responsible innovation.  The Rathenau Instituut can draw on years of experience in facilitating dialogue on science and technology development, particularly on situations of scientific uncertainty. Examples of relevant Rathenau projects are the Nanodialoog (Nano dialogue), the Ammoniakdossier (Ammonia dossier) and our current project on radioactive waste.

The Precautionary Principle

The precautionary principle comes down to the following: where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, such as with the introduction of new substances or technology that could have permanent systemic (side-)effects, scientific uncertainty should not be an excuse to not take precautionary measures. Or, in simple terms: better safe than sorry.

The principle has a long history and it has been given a place in our society in various ways. Since the 1970s the principle has increasingly acquired the status of an internationally recognized general principle of law. In every legal and regulatory domain where there is scientific uncertainty about serious risks - for example environmental law, legislation on chemical substances, or food law – the principle directs towards precautionary action. In this regard it has for example been included in the Lisbon Treaty of the Functioning of the EU and other important international treaties. More recently, it has also been formalized in, amongst others, practices in which risks are assessed, in company guidelines or instructions for policy makers.

But what exactly is a ‘principle’? Ronald Dworkin [1] describes principles in law as open-ended in character. They do not offer a predetermined solution. Rather, principles have a high moral content and aim to give decision makers direction, in particular with respect to justice and fairness. Principles, in contrast to policies or approaches, can be legally binding, and form the basis of specifically formulated rules [1]. However, the interpretative flexibility in the formulation and application of these rules leaves room for judgement.


In order to strengthen the application of the precautionary principle, the Rathenau Instituut is participating in the European RECIPES project.  This Horizon 2020 research initiative is designed to develop strategies and guidelines that combine the precautionary principle with innovation opportunities. This article is part of a series of articles on precaution and innovation that we write in the context of RECIPES.

[1] Dworkin, R., A Matter of Principle, Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 43-45 and Zander, J., The Application of the Precautionary Principle in Practice. Comparative Dimensions, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010, p. 30.