HIGHLIGHTS 30 APRIL 30, 2014

Leaders

An awesome mind can be born anywhere. Societies that foster, recognize and build upon such minds ultimately benefit. Those who ignore or silence them-lose out. Mozart, Plato, Jefferson, da Vinci, Jobs, Franklin, Gandhi. Awesome minds work as individuals or as a collaborative effort. They are not limited to art, politics, business or science. They can be in environmental sciences and public health.

Back in 2001 the European Environment Agency (EEA) released a ground breaking report about technologies subsequently found to be harmful. It addressed the history of the precautionary principle and pointed out that often action was taken only long after the fist indications of a problem, which by then had already caused serious human health damage and high costs. It was done in collaboration with a broad range of external authors and peer reviewers. The report, titled Late Lessons From Early Warnings, has far-reaching implications for policy, science and society.

Change in today's world has accelerated since 2001. Technologies are now taken up more quickly than before. Risks may spread faster and further, outstripping society’s capacity to understand and respond to these effects in time to avoid harm. The precautionary principle has become even more important.

Late Lessons Early Warnings

In 2013, the second report on "Late Lessons from Early Warnings" was released. Its case studies include fertility problems caused by pesticides, hormone-disrupting chemicals in common plastics, industrial mercury poisoning, and pharmaceuticals that are changing ecosystems. It points to worrying signs from genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology – both already in wide use.

It addresses also the question of "false positives": warnings that turned out to be false alarms.

It further stresses the use of the precautionary principle to reduce hazards in cases of largely untested technologies and chemicals. Scientific uncertainty is not a justification for inaction, when there is plausible evidence of potentially serious harm.

More importantly, it also shows that precautionary actions can often stimulate rather than stifle innovation.

It recommends that science should acknowledge the complexity of biological and environmental systems, becauseit is increasingly difficult to isolate a single agent and prove beyond doubt that it causes harm. Hence, a more cross-disciplinary approach would improve the understanding and prevention of hazards.

Secondly, it urges that our policy makers respond to early warnings more rapidly, especially in cases of large scale technologies.

Thirdly, it concludes that those causing any future harm should pay for the damage.

Fourthly, it shows that risk assessment can be improved. For example, ‘No evidence of harm’ has often been often misinterpreted to mean ‘evidence of no harm’ when the relevant research was not available.

It proposes forms of governance involving citizens in choices about innovation and risk analysis to reduce exposure to hazards and encourage innovations with broader societal benefits.

Greater interaction between governments, citizens and business could lead to more robust and diverse innovations at less cost to health and the environment.

You can download full reports and ebooks as well as individual chapters here.

David Gee, the originator of the Late Lessons from Early Warnings project at the EEA, also led the editorial team for the second report.

I am delighted to let you know that David will be visiting us for two events in Switzerland to share essential insights from this unique and important project.

The first one, hosted by dr Jean Stalder, the President of the board of PAN SWSS, will take place on Wednesday, May 14 thfrom 18:30 to 21:00 in Lonay, above Morges (please contact me at margaret.bergen@panswiss.org)

The second one, hosted by Angelika Hilbeck and organized by D-USYS and USYS Tdlab, on Thursday, will take place on May 15th, from 16:15 to 18:15, building CHN, room E46, ETH Zurich (please contact Angelika Hilbeck at angelika.hilbeck@env.ethz.ch).

David's lecture in Zurich will be followed by commentaries of three ETH scientists:

Christoph Keuffer was the contributing author of the chapter on invasive alien species in the second Late Lessons report.
Angelica Hilbeck will comment on the application of the precautionary principle in the contest of genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Martin Scheringer will comment on the chemical-related case studies, in particular the one on DDT.

We are certain that the presentations will foster an insightful general discussion.