European citizens on the Precautionary Principle and innovation: transparency, risk assessment and stakeholders' engagement are key
In May and June 2019, the RECIPES project hosted citizen meetings in Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Italy and Bulgaria. RECIPES Citizens who took part in the meetings had the chance to reflect on issues related to precaution and innovation in relation to research and to provide their ideas and opinions.
The precautionary principle has arisen as part of the discussions on how to protect public health and the environment when faced with uncertain. When dealing with issues of considerable concern and scientific uncertainty, European policy-making has adopted solutions based on the precautionary principle. Objective was to ensure high levels of public health, environmental protection and consumer safety without compromising science or technological innovation.
The precautionary principle, in both the EU and national context, has become the subject of some debate. For proponents, its application is a way to encourage a cautious decision-making when placing certain products on the market and, more generally, when making technological choices. In this view it is not opposed to innovation. For opponents, the precautionary principle can lead to an excess of caution that hinders scientific creativity and technological innovation. Thus, harming economic growth and the competitiveness of economic players on a world stage where not everyone is subject to the same rules.
Over all the citizens meetings could be described as lively and friendly. A common thread was that people thought that the topic discussed was interesting, important and that they were happy to be involved.
It seemed that most people were open to share their opinion and the discussions went in a respectful manner, though – because the topic was so broad – a lot of different themes and subjects were discussed. The participants nevertheless seemed to be very well capable to make the concepts of the material their own and apply it on historical, contemporary or even personal issues or examples.
The citizens’ view
In general, the participants’ view on precaution and innovation was that they were not in contradiction with each other and some consensus consisted about the need to look at innovation and precaution at a case-by-case basis. Though considerable concerns, and often apathy, towards the development of innovation reoccurred, participants did not seem overly pessimistic towards innovation. People were able to cite a variety of dilemmas, worst-case scenarios and problems with regard to technology, but did not seem too angry or desperate about it.
Knowledge, independence from external interest, transparency and democratic responsibility seemed to be prerequisites that often surfaced during the discussions on ‘burden of proof’ and invoking and developing the precautionary principle. Distrust, or at least scepticism towards the neutrality of actors and institutions (especially politicians and companies) were often expressed. In relation to technology, ‘power’ and ‘economic interests’ were constantly themes that resurfaced.
Testimonies from the 5 countries
“The Dutch participants overall were of the opinion that there does not necessarily exist a trade-off between the two, innovation and precaution, but that transparency and involvement of a broad variety of stakeholders are important.”
“The Bulgarian participants were motivated by their desire to learn more about precaution and innovation, as well as by their concerns about the potential risks posed by emerging technologies on environmental and human health."
“In the capital city, a small town and a country village, Italian citizens from the Lazio region declared that precaution and innovation go hand in hand.”
“The Danish debate was lively and friendly. In general, the view was that everybody who has a stake should have a voice and depending on the nature of the technology or innovation, it would be obvious to make constellations of actors who would be wise to involve and in some extreme cases it would be irresponsible not to involve everyone.”
The meetings were hosted by UiB, Rathenau, Arc Fund and K&I.
Project manager Aske Palsberg
Senior project manager Søren Gram