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Uitzicht vanaf het strand van Den Haag op de Maasvlakte
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22 September 2020

Precaution for innovation with uncertain risks: what do the Dutch people think?

Precaution Innovation Regulations
Photo: The Maasvlakte seen from the beach/Frans Blok- Shutterstock
Innovation contributes to new products that could be appealing or even vital to society. For example, nanotechnology can be used to make medicines that are more accurate and target the right place in the body. Technical solutions, however, are not always without risk. For example, nanoparticles are so small that, when used as medicines, it is uncertain where they end up in the body and whether they cause damage there. As a society, how important is it to be careful with new technologies, of which not all risks are clear yet? Can you also be too cautious? And who is responsible? These questions were central during a discussion meeting with citizens about the precautionary principle: 'prevention is better than cure'.

In short:

  • Last year, 40 people of different ages, professions and backgrounds came together in The Hague to discuss how the government should deal with uncertain risks to public health and the environment when researching and marketing new technology.
  • Most participants felt that precaution does not have to come at the expense of innovation, and that a thorough precautionary approach to (uncertain) risks is important. Both the government and companies have a responsibility in this respect.
  • The forcefield and economic interests surrounding technology were discussed at length. In order to regulate this we need a.o. transparency, reliable information to the general public, international agreements on precaution, and independent regulators.

We've already looked back on this evening as part of the European RECIPES-project. In this article we give an overview of the most important findings.

Everyone can participate

To gain insight into the opinion of the Dutch on the application of precaution for innovation of which the risks are still insufficiently clear, we invited a diverse group of 40 people with different professions and education to our institute in The Hague. During the meeting, participants talked in small groups about questions such as: how important is precaution? Who is responsible for demonstrating that a technology is safe: the companies that develop it or the government? And how can the interests of parties who do not have a direct representative, such as the environment or future generations, be taken into account?

Three innovations where tensions exist between precaution and innovation were central to the meeting. In addition to the already mentioned nanotechnology, we also discussed genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticides. With genetic modification, crops can be made resistant to drought or flooding caused by climate change. At the same time, environmental organisations, for example, express concerns about the impact of the introduction of GMOs on existing ecosystems. Certain innovative pesticides, the neonicotinoids, have been used since the 1990s to protect crops against harmful insects. It is only now that research has shown that bee populations worldwide are drastically decreasing and that there is a correlation between the two.  

It is only now that research has shown that bee populations worldwide are drastically decreasing and that there is a correlation between the two.

Well in advance of the meeting, participants were invited to read about the three technologies, the benefits they offer, and the possible risks they entail. Just before the discussion really started, participants filled in an individual questionnaire to form an opinion about the topics of the discussions. The quantitative analysis of these data was later compared with insights that emerged during the discussions. The results of the meeting were combined with four similar meetings in other countries in a joint RECIPES publication, which is available here.

Precaution does not conflict with innovation

The participants thought it was important to both give room to innovation and to apply precaution. If they had to choose, they had a slight preference for precaution over the progress of innovation. Precaution was seen as a logical way to protect public values such as health and the environment, while innovation was more often associated with individual and economic interests. An argument in favour of innovation was that risks are necessary for progress and maintaining a competitive advantage, e.g. over China. Few people (18%) felt that precaution should be subordinate to progress in innovation. Most spoke of a 'synergetic relationship' in which precaution could steer innovation in the right direction.

Precaution was seen as a logical way to protect public values such as health and the environment, while innovation was more often associated with individual and economic interests.

The vast majority (93%) were in favour of taking precautions for innovations where there is uncertainty about the risks. In both the questionnaire and the discussions, participants stressed the importance of a thorough precautionary approach. In both the questionnaire and the discussions, participants stressed the importance of a thorough precautionary approach. They did so on the basis that even a low degree of uncertainty about serious damage caused by a product or technology justifies taking measures. At the same time, most participants felt that achieving one hundred percent safety was unlikely. Approximately half felt that both companies and government should have a responsibility to prove that a product is safe (or unsafe).

Involving stakeholders in decisions about uncertain risks

Although most people (83%) felt that ethical, moral and social aspects should also be taken into account, the responsibility for the final decision on the application of the precautionary principle was mainly placed on experts, i.e.: researchers (90%) and government agencies (75%). There was more disagreement about involving other stakeholders. About half of the participants wanted to involve the following groups: citizens and/or NGOs and/or (other) international organizations (think of the World Health Organization or the UN). In the group discussions, participants mentioned a number of times that young people should also be involved, because in the future they will eventually have to live with the consequences of decisions concerning precaution and innovation.

In the group discussions, participants mentioned a number of times that young people should also be involved.

There was a lot of discussion about who is allowed to decide on the application of precaution in innovation. For almost every group, arguments for and against the use of precaution were mentioned in the discussions. Especially towards politicians there was distrust, because they do not always (and can not always) have the necessary knowledge at their disposal, and possibly pursue their own political interests. This led to discussions about how this type of decision-making process should be shaped. In addition, there were discussions about the importance of transparency. It needs to be made clear why decisions have been taken. It was also considered important that there are joint agreements between countries on the correct application of precaution. This also applies to independent supervisors who collect the necessary information and have democratic control over the decision-making process. Themes that were often discussed were the power and major economic interests that technology brings with it. That is why caution is considered so important.

Control over technology?

In addition to the technologies from the information material, people also mentioned other innovations with potential risks where a precautionary approach could be of added value. Such as: the dangers of large-scale data collection by large tech companies, pulse fishing, medical implants, wifi, nuclear power, plastics, electromagnetic fields, vaccination and cloning.

Innovation in a general sense was often characterized by the participants in the discussion as an unstoppable force that could not possibly be stopped by regulation. However, this conviction was less present when people themselves knew details of the precautions taken for specific innovations, such as the strict research and safety requirements imposed on genetically modified food.

Innovation in a general sense was often characterized by the participants in the discussion as an unstoppable force that could not possibly be stopped by regulation.

The idea that 'technological development will continue anyway', despite strict requirements for innovation, seemed to be reinforced by the assumption that companies, politicians and researchers will do everything in their power to stimulate innovation. Some participants expressed a general frustration that 'the man in the street' cannot keep up with the speed of innovation. Others pointed to examples of innovation, such as cell phones and the internet, that suddenly changed society and were unstoppable. Moreover, the participants knew more about scandals surrounding the negative effects of the technologies than about their solution. People turned out to be less well informed about existing laws and regulations and policy practices surrounding these technologies; how risks are dealt with and who is responsible for them.

Medicines were more often cited as a positive example of how precaution can be properly applied. Thorough research with different phases of clinical trials is a safe way to gain more insight into the risks of drugs. According to many participants, precautions are also important in the innovation process (rather than during the market approval procedure). The development of technology can take place within a 'controllable' or 'closed' environment, or the development can take place step by step, so that risks can be discovered more quickly.

What do we do next?

The question of how we deal with the uncertain risks of technology concerns us all. After all, we all have to deal with the consequences of possible risks, but we can also benefit from the developed technology. How the public interest can be properly incorporated into the regulation of research and market authorization of innovation is not an easy question. However, the meeting did make it clear (once again) that citizens talk enthusiastically about this and provide important insights.

the meeting did make it clear (once again) that citizens talk enthusiastically about this and provide important insights.

When making innovation policy and laws and regulations, it is important to take the opinions of various stakeholders into account. Not only from researchers and regulators, but also from future users and stakeholders who often experience the advantages or disadvantages of new technology to an unequal degree. After all, in a democratic society it is important for citizens to be able to participate in and be aware of decisions that can have a major impact on their lives.

Our insights based on the meetings have been submitted to the European Commission together with the results of other countries. They were also included in the follow-up steps of the RECIPES project. Ultimately, the aim of this project is to gain insight into how precaution can be better combined with innovation opportunities.