International Waters learning Exchange & Resource Network

The precautionary principle in environmental science (2001)

Environmental scientists play a key role in society’s responses to environmental problems, and many of the studies they perform are intended ultimately to affect policy. The precautionary principle, proposed as a new guideline in environmental decision making, has four central components: 1) taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; 2) shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; 3) exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and 4) increasing public participation in decision-making. This paper examines the implications of the precautionary principle for environmental scientists, whose work often involves studying highly complex, poorly understood systems, while at the same time facing conflicting pressures from those who seek to balance economic growth and environmental protection. In this complicated and contested terrain, it is useful to examine the methodologies of science, and to consider ways that, without compromising integrity and objectivity, research can be more or less helpful to those who would act with precaution. This paper argues that a shift to more precautionary policies creates opportunities and challenges for scientists to think differently about the ways they conduct studies and communicate results. There is a complicated feedback relation between the discoveries of science and the setting of policy. While maintaining their objectivity and focus on understanding the world, environmental scientists should be aware of the policy uses of their work, and of their social responsibility to do science that protects human health and the environment. The precautionary principle highlights this tight, challenging linkage between science and policy.

18 Sep 2018

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The precautionary principle in environmental science (2001).pdf