Overline: Policy Brief
Headline: Precaution and Innovation Are by No Means at Odds

The EU Horizon 2020 project “RECIPES” has published its final policy brief. A team from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) led by Pia-Johanna Schweizer was involved in the project and examined how participatory approaches can support the application of the precautionary principle. This issue is explored in depth in a chapter of the project’s report “Guidance on the application of the precautionary principle in the EU”.

Kompass Guidance Vorsorge
The precautionary principle has a double function: it serves both as a safeguard against irreversible damage and as a compass leading to responsible innovation. Shutterstock/ PopTika

The research project "REconciling sCience, Innovation and Precaution through the Engagement of Stakeholders" (RECIPES) explores pathways to improve the future application of the precautionary principle in approval processes for chemical substances like pesticides or the use of nanotechnology, for example. The aim of the precautionary principle is to prevent irreversible damage to the environment and human health. As a legal principle, it can justify early policy or regulatory action to manage the uncertain risks of substances or products. It also aims to ensure that the rights of current and future EU citizens are protected.

As a compass for science, the precautionary principle can prompt upstream debates and research about the potential impacts of emerging technologies and related innovation pathways, and can lead to adjustments in innovation development and stimulate responsible innovation.

"Our findings show that the precautionary principle and innovation are by no means at odds," says IASS scientist Schweizer. "On the contrary: The precautionary principle is crucial for promoting sustainable innovation." Based on their analyses, the authors of the final policy brief "Precaution for responsible innovation" conclude that the precautionary principle works best in a dual role: It serves both as a safeguard against irreversible damage and as a compass to guide responsible innovation.

Participation, or: the knowledge of many

In situations with a high level of uncertainty, a key question is: How can we determine the severity of a (future) situation and the suitability of precautionary measures when the potential harm and its likelihood are unknown or highly uncertain? This requires the participation of a wide range of knowledge- and stakeholders to find a balance, be it between protecting humans and protecting the environment, or other interests.

When a given risk is subject to sharply divergent socio-cultural attitudes, political perspectives, or economic interests, a broad societal discussion might be necessary. Participatory processes can help uncover and resolve conflicts of knowledge, values, and interests related to managing uncertain risks.

Here, participation has three goals:

  1. to uncover and bring together the plurality of relevant knowledge – inside and outside of science;
  2. to anticipate potential barriers to implementing decisions; and
  3. to consider norms, values and world views, no matter how diverse, in decision-making processes.

While public participation is already enshrined in international treaties such as the 1998 Aarhus Convention and EU environmental legislation, participatory-deliberative practices need to be further improved to enable policymakers and decision-makers to address the multiplicity of risks associated with society's most pressing problems. Fair and competent participation requires that policymakers and regulators are able to prioritise good risk governance and pursue adaptive policy- and decisionmaking processes – and are willing to allocate the necessary resources.

Ultimately, the precautionary principle, through its dual role, strengthens the EU’s capacity to anticipate, identify, and proactively manage scientifically uncertain but plausible and potentially serious risks. According to the authors, the principle also helps to (re)direct science and technology toward societally beneficial ends.

Researching the RECIPES project

The RECIPES researchers conducted an extensive review of the literature and legal documents and a legal analysis of how the precautionary principle has been applied in practice at the international level, EU level and in five European countries since the year 2000. The team also performed nine case studies and an inter-case study analysis aimed at understanding and analyzing the commonalities and differences in the application of the precautionary principle towards innovation in the EU depending on the topic and the context.

This was complemented by a year-long stakeholder engagement process in which participants from the policy sector, industry, business, civil society and academia identified needs concerning the future application of the precautionary principle. The stakeholders were asked what they thought was needed to ensure that the precautionary principle encouraged innovation and contributed to the achievement of societally beneficial goals.


Johannes Andresen Oldervoll et al.: Policy Brief - Precaution for responsible innovation: Guidance on the application of the precautionary principle in the EU, 2022.

Johannes Andresen Oldervoll et al.: Guidance on the application of the precautionary principle in the EU, 30 April 2022.