Taking the debate to Europe

spiked interrogates the precautionary principle at the first Euroscience Open Forum in Stockholm.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

On 26 August 2004, spiked organised, in association with the Royal Institution, a session on ‘Science, Precaution and the Future of Innovation’ at the first Euroscience Open Forum in Stockholm – a ‘pan-European scientific meeting staged to provide an interdisciplinary forum for open dialogue, debate and discussion on science and technology in society’ (1).

We invited Professor Sir Colin Berry, emeritus professor of pathology at Queen Mary’s Hospital, to lead the discussion on whether precaution and safety – the watchwords of our age – have a detrimental impact on the future of scientific inquiry.

Berry pointed out that the central tenet of the ‘precautionary principle’ was spelled out by Soren Holm and John Harris in their critique of it in Nature magazine in 1999: ‘When an activity raises threats of serious or irreversible harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures that prevent the possibility of harm shall be taken even if the causal link between the activity and the possible harm has not been proven or the causal link is weak and the harm is unlikely to occur.’

Berry is concerned that if society should demand that everything we do is absolutely safe, risk-free and proven to have no adverse outcomes, medical breakthroughs would come to a standstill and science would be stifled. In fact, if the precautionary principle was strictly adhered to, we would never get anywhere.

This is unlikely to happen – but it still has its costs, argued Berry. For a start, it doesn’t make financial sense to adopt a principle that demands that actions are regulated on the basis of concerns rather than scientific data. For instance, the advanced train protection system implemented to save lives after the Hatfield train crash cost £15million per life saved. This should be weighed up against the number of lives that could be saved by putting the same amount of money into the provision of better healthcare, said Berry.

But it is more than the financial costs that concern him. There is the danger that the precautionary principle causes its own harm. In the 1980s, the favoured precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of a baby falling victim to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was to lay the baby on her side or front. This seemed like a reasonable precautionary measure to take, since medical opinion had established that such measures saved the lives of unconscious or stroke-troubled patients.

However, Berry argues that it in fact cost lives. After the policy was reversed and babies were put to sleep on their backs, the death rate from SIDS in the UK fell from about 1,300 to 1,400 a year to about 300 to 400, he pointed out. ‘This shows that we need data’, Berry argued. ‘Being precautionary, taking safety measures without testing the evidence, is not enough.’

In the discussion that followed, a number of challenging questions were raised: about the extent of the impact of the precautionary principle, what drives the current clamour for a safety-first approach, and whether it is possible to have a more ‘sensible’ application of the precautionary principle.

These are questions that we will address in detail on spiked in the coming months, through events, debates and articles.

Read on:

Science, risk and the price of precaution, by Sandy Starr

More sorry than safe, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) EuroScience Open Forum

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Topics Politics


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