GreenFutures, October 16, 2001


[Rachel's introduction: The precautionary principle is being successfully applied in all sorts of controversial decisions.]

By Jonathon Porritt

I am not a scientist. Yet I have spent much of my adult life having to engage with a wide range of complex scientific issues that now permeate the environmental agenda. From climate change and nuclear power to endocrine disrupters and tropical deforestation, I have wrestled long and hard to try to 'get the science sorted'.

And I wrestle too with my views about science itself, and its role in our lives. As an environmentalist, I find myself locating modern science at the very heart of today's destructive model of progress. At the same time, I know just how much we rely on science to provide answers to otherwise intractable problems. I am as ambivalent as the next person -- in awe of what science seems to promise, yet fearful of its impact on our lives. And critical of the scientific elites who wield such influence in modern society.

So when Thames and Hudson invited me to write a book about science and the environment (Playing Safe), it looked like a heaven-sent opportunity to get to grips with this ambivalence by asking myself one question: is modern science in a fit state to assist us in making that crucial transition to a sustainable future for the whole of humankind? At one level, the answer is as simple as the question: it's really not very well adapted for the task. But there are a number of rather complex reasons that lie behind that.

For one thing, we just don't trust scientists in the way we once did. We have learned the hard way that for almost all 'scientific breakthroughs', there is a corresponding downside, with the result that people are much more wary about over-hyped scientific visions of the future. We no longer see scientists as some kind of superior breed, existing in a zone of uncluttered rationality, to whom we should automatically defer as we once did to bishops -- or even politicians.

And we trust them less because we are not convinced of their objectivity or independence. Government scientists are patently not 'value-free', often toeing whatever the official line may be in a way that makes a mockery of so-called 'sound science'. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and the biggest paymasters in many crucial areas of science today are the world's multinational companies, for whom the pursuit of sustainability remains rather less important than the pursuit of profit.

The reek of money permeates "objective" research

In a devastating critique of the chemical industry in the United States*, researchers looked in detail at just four of the most commonly used chemicals in America, reviewing 161 studies of those chemicals on file at the National Library of Medicine. Of the 43 industry-funded studies, only six came out with any unfavourable findings. But of the 118 studies conducted by non-industry researchers, 71 were unfavourable. It's hard not to detect the reek of money around such findings. And it does rather call into question the rather naive belief of some leading scientists that 'money does not smell'; that the source of any research grant doesn't really matter, since the integrity of the scientific method will provide a sure defence against any skulduggery. It's worth bearing in mind that of the 1,700 or so scientists researching herbicides in America, 90% are employed by chemical companies.

In this respect, the contrast between the science of climate change and the science of GM foods could not be more telling. Slowly but surely, the evidence on the former is being gathered together under the aegis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This body was set up by governments to advise governments on what's happening, what's causing it, and what needs to be done about it. Hundreds of scientists all around the world are involved; all papers have to be published and peer reviewed; and there is total transparency in the IPCC's workings. When its third Assessment Report is published next year, governments can be assured that it will be as near to an independent assessment as is possible in this still relatively uncertain area of science.

Compare that approach (however frustrating it may be for environmentalists who know we need to be moving so much faster) with the use and abuse of scientific data surrounding GM crops. Much of the research is done at the behest of the large biotech companies, is rarely subject to peer review, and often never sees the light of day at all, due to commercial confidentiality. Even government regulators are kept in the dark, and research that should be done (for instance, to test the horizontal transfer of genes from one species to another), is often left undone.

We need 'civic' science instead of 'top-down' science Whilst the growing public consensus on climate change is gradually leading to more appropriate policy responses, the biotech industry in Europe has all but imploded -- and is even at risk in America. Politicians would do well to analyse the role that science has played in such starkly different commercial and policy outcomes.

Trust lies at the very heart of the 'fitness of purpose' debate. So too does education. Most scientists (particularly those in the employ of government or the private sector) are still accustomed to the top- down model of engaging with the general public. They speak, and we listen. When we choose not to hear (or not believe what they are saying), their reflex response is to accuse us of emotionalism, stupidity or plain ignorance.

Against such a backdrop, the scientific establishment (as represented by bodies such as the Royal Society's Committee for the Public Understanding of Science) has consistently argued that what is needed is yet more top-down education, filling those inadequate empty vessels with copious draughts of 'sound science'. This so-called 'deficit model' (implying that the problem is a lack of information coming down from above) has only recently begun to give way to a much more participative, dialogue-based one. One where people are given greater opportunities to think things through for themselves; to listen and reflect on conflicting positions.

This emerging model of 'civic science' emphasises the rather obvious reality that science has to be an interactive process between experts and non-experts, based on trust and mutual respect. Since Mo Mowlam took over from Jack Cunningham at the Cabinet Office, there's been a pronounced shift in that direction. Now the Department of Trade and Industry is itself involved in a major public consultation on the biosciences. The fieldwork is being conducted by MORI, using a number of citizens' juries, along with a detailed survey of 1,000 people drawn from the People's Panel set up by the Cabinet Office in 1998.

Helping them to help us

Such an approach was strongly endorsed by last year's report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and even the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science has at last launched an initiative to help scientists to understand the public -- which is probably where they should have started in the first place!

Civic science inevitably slows things down. So too does the gradual adoption of the so-called 'precautionary principle' in a growing number of policy areas. A working definition of it goes something like this: "The lack of definitive scientific evidence should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to protect the environment or human health, where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage to either." So, as with sustainable development itself, the precautionary principle can be interpreted in all sorts of different ways to suit all sorts of different purposes!

That's one reason why it has become one of the most controversial areas in environmental science today. The Economist has referred to it as "the new mantra of the environment movement", claiming that it's being used to stop legitimate new developments and to drive up regulatory costs in a way that the evidence simply doesn't justify. Many scientists have challenged its scientific validity, deeply suspicious of the way in which it appears to threaten the authority of cause-and-effect based science, shifting the balance of power between 'objective science' and other 'subjective' political and social factors.

By contrast, Greenpeace sees it as the most effective way of combining science and ethics, and promotes the principle as a long-overdue corrective to the over-confident style of development that has dominated the global economy for the last 50 years. Even such a noted champion of trade liberalisation as Sir Leon Brittain (the former EU trade commissioner) defended Europe's use of the precautionary principle "to preserve our existing level of environmental and social protection", subject only to its being more rigorously defined "to prevent it from being evoked in an abusive way".

It is being successfully applied to all sorts of controversial decisions, going right back to the late 1980s ban on dumping sewage sludge in the North Sea, through to the more recent decision to stop using certain antibiotics as growth-promoters in animal feeds, on the grounds that residual traces in the food chain could increase resistance to medicines based on the same antibiotics.

Alien principle: progress continues to fight precaution Just a couple of months ago, the EU won a major victory over the US with the signing of the Biosafety Protocol, which will permit countries to ban imports of GM foods on a precautionary basis, if there are fears of potential threats to either human health or the environment. That decision represented a real breakthrough. But there are many other areas where precaution remains an entirely alien dis- cipline to our decision- makers.

From even this cursory analysis, using the 'fitness for purpose' test, one can conclude that modern science must become more independent, more participative and user-friendly, and much more precautionary. In Playing Safe, I have identified a number of such directional shifts that will be required if science is to play a more benign role in effecting the transition to a genuinely sustainable society.

But for the moment, quite frankly, the signals are not good. There is an arrogance about modern science that makes regulation by government difficult and true public accountability all but impossible. Those scientists who retain a vision of science directly serving humankind (not least by securing the Earth's life- support systems on which everything else depends) are overshadowed by those who would set caution aside and quite simply 'let modern science rip'.

But for how much longer?

In contrast to the rather gloomy outlook above, the optimist in me says we're on the brink of a profound transformation of all the central institutions in our society, including both politics and science, as we finally learn to internalise the real challenge of sustainability

Jonathon Porritt is Programme Director of Forum for the Future.

Playing Safe is published by Thames and Hudson, price £6.95, 020 7845 5000;

* Toxic Perception: How the chemical industry manipulates science, bends the law and endangers your health, by Dan Fagin and Marriane Lavelle