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French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety




Updated on 14/09/2015

Conference: "Health Risks, Precaution and Innovation"

Organised by : Anses and Sustainable development chair at Sciences Po


Place : Sciences Po - Chapsal Amphitheatre - 27, rue Saint Guillaume - 75007 Paris

Public : Open to all

In the difficult economic environment faced by France and many other European countries, characterised by a lack of growth and worrying collateral effects in economic and social terms, business competitiveness is seen as an engine of growth that should be given free rein.

Some consider that the precautionary principle leads to an excess of caution, hinders scientific creativity and fosters unwarranted or at least disproportionate anxiety among the population when faced with technological development and the future of our societies: in short, the precautionary spirit, "precautionism" as it is sometimes called, may harm innovation and the ability of economic players to compete effectively on a world stage where not everyone plays by the same rules.

For others, recalling earlier events that are sadly notorious for their environmental and health consequences (e.g. DDT, asbestos, leaded petrol, various chemicals that have permanently contaminated the environment), referring to the precautionary principle can only encourage greater vision when placing certain products on the market and, more generally, when making technological choices. Anticipating the occurrence, albeit uncertain, of serious and irreversible potential damage could thus encourage the internalisation of negative externalities, the exploration of possible unexpected effects and a better collective implication in certain technological choices.

In both cases, research and scientific expertise have a role to play, when they are not the subject of controversy, whether in providing the knowledge needed to judge the plausibility of any damage, establishing the proportionality of possible regulatory measures, assessing the existence of alternatives, or even in encouraging greater boldness and creativity in order to face the challenges of the future. In both cases policymakers are held to account and criticised, either for hiding behind the necessarily incomplete or uncertain nature of scientific knowledge, or for favouring short-termism with regard to economic logic to the detriment of shared long-term health and environmental issues.

Given this climate of tension and the legitimate concerns of the different stakeholders, the Sciences Po Sustainable Development Chair and ANSES decided to open a forum for discussion whose aim is not to feed the controversy, but rather to:

  • Fundamentally reconsider the precautionary principle in an effort to gain a shared understanding of the initial political motivations and of its application since it was enshrined in the French constitution.
  • Observe how the precautionary approach is employed and how it has evolved in other parts of the world.
  • Examine the role and responsibilities of the different stakeholders (public authorities, agencies, companies, research bodies) in the application of the precautionary principle.
  • Question the ability of (economic) players to adopt the precautionary principle as part of a systemic vision and to manage uncertainty over a long period.
  • Illustrate how application of the precautionary principle can be a factor for innovation, or even provide a competitive advantage.
  • Question the very notion of innovation, whose implications are not just technical and economic, but also social. Is it not true that we are seeking more inclusive innovations?

Ultimately, this journey through the different facets of the precautionary principle may lead us to a question that is critical, yet overshadowed by the controversy: surely the real issue is to question what constitutes a good innovation? And how can we design an economically viable innovation, in a viable environment, whose social and economic benefits are shared more equitably?

Practical information

Sciences Po, Chapsal Amphitheatre

 27, rue Saint Guillaume - 75007 Paris

By Public transportation

Metro : line 12 (rue du Bac, Sèvres-Babylone), ligne 10 (Sèvres-Babylone), ligne 4 (Saint-Germain des Prés)

Bus : lines 39, 63, 68, 69, 70, 83, 84, 86, 87, 94, 95, 96

By car

20 minutes from Orly airport near the A10 and A86 motorways

10 minutes from porte d’Orléans direction "Denfert-Rochereau" then "Saint-Germain des Prés"

Public parking "Saint-Germain des Prés"