Late Lessons from Early Warnings – new insights into old lessons and emerging issues

by Hilary Sutcliffe on January 23, 2013

Hilary Sutcliffe is the Director of MATTER, an EU based think tank which focuses on promoting Responsible Innovation, particularly the appropriate use of new and emerging technologies, such as nanotech, biotech, genomics, synthetic biology and geoengineering. She is also a member of the Risk Science Center External Advisory Board

Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation. EAA, January 2013

Are we destined to repeat the mistakes of even the very recent past in our race to make money, or to solve today’s problems at the expense of tomorrow’s generation?  It seems horribly like we are unless something changes.  From my skim read of Late Lessons from Early Warnings: science, precaution and innovationthe second volume in this series from European Environment Agency which was launched today at the European Parliament – we are still not as good as we need to be in learning the lessons from past mistakes.

The just-published report catalogues a number of environmental and social issues from recent years, and explores what lessons can be learned by policy makers, businesses, scientists and those who seek to understand and mitigate risk.  It explores lessons from known hazards, including Beryllium, PCE, lead in Petrol, Bisphenol A and DBCP among others, but then moves on to emerging issues from nuclear energy, GM crops, invasive alien species, mobile phones and even one from the Risk Science Center’s Andrew Maynard & Di Bowman on Early Lessons on Early Warnings from Nanotechnologies which is worth reading!  [I would second that – Ed.]

For those in the US in particular who find the “P” word (as in ‘Precaution’) to be a problem, you will have a had a heart attack by the end of Late Lessons 2, as it is very much about trying to understand where and how precaution should be most effectively invoked.  It is a concept that features in virtually every article!  But an overarching theme is that that precaution doesn’t stifle innovation.  Rather, it actually stimulates and encourages it, and is an important factor in ensuring economic and social progress.

I particularly like the chapter on the thorny subject of ‘false alarms’.  These are sometimes used to justify inaction or lax regulation in the name avoiding over-regulating minor risks, or even non-existent risks.  Public and NGO ‘irrationality’ are often cited as the root cause of ‘overreaction by bureaucrats’ associated with false alarms.  What I found particularly interesting from the analysis is that of the 88 ‘false positives’ considered here, only four were found to ultimately have been an over-reaction – the US response to Swine Flu in 1976, and responses to saccharin, food irradiation and Southern leaf corn blight.  The analysis indicated that fear of false positives is misplaced and should not be a rationale for avoiding precautionary actions.

Some academic compilations shy away from findings and recommendations, but this report doesn’t. There are some interesting later chapters on the protection of whistleblowers and victims, an attempt to consider and account for the costs of inaction and a look at why businesses don’t react with precaution to early warnings, which is helpful for my work in particular. The introduction and conclusions are hard hitting, but also give real insights on what steps need to be taken by science, policy, business and those involved in risk.

There is much food for thought here, and the report’s main conclusions show that the UM Risk Science Centre’s broader approach to understanding risk – focus on widening participation and more effective communication and engagement – are spot on.

Late Lessons 2 suggests that there may indeed be a ‘Homo-illogical cycle’ – an inability to learn the lessons of the past – that is endemic to our species   But it concludes that “humans can learn, change and transform and there is enormous potential in human creativity and its capacity to inspire cultural,social, political, institutional, organisational and behavioural innovation, beyond ‘mere’ technological innovation.”

Late Lessons from Early Warnings: science, precaution and innovation is published by the European Environment Agency, and can be accessed at

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