Uncertain safety

WRR Scientific Council for Government Policy | 2008

In view of the vulnerability of humans, society and the natural environment, a proactive approach to uncertainties is required. A precautionary approach will create new responsibilities for the government, the private sector and consumers, as well as new activities. In its report Uncertain safety (Report no. 82, 2008), the WRR recommends inserting the new precautionary principle in the Constitution.

Not so much risks as uncertainties

The classical risk approach has limitations as a result of social developments (food safety, new technologies and climate change, for example) and progressive scientific insights. Society is not so much confronted with risks as with uncertainties. These uncertainties have to be addressed in an organised manner.

Proactive approach to uncertainties

A proactive approach to uncertainties can take various forms. For example, by actively conducting research or by designing early-warning systems. An adequate policy on physical safety also requires that the government has access to the relevant knowledge. The independence of science is an essential precondition for this.

Background of this report

Governments, non-governmental organizations, businessmen and experts regularly voice concerns about safety and security issues. Often these concerns pertain to crime and terrorist threats. However, safety issues need attention as well. Although citizens of today’s Western industrialized countries on average live longer and in better health than previous generations and the inhabitants of most other countries, flood prevention, food safety, the transport of hazardous substances, infectious diseases, the risk of new technologies and many other threats to public health and the environment call for ongoing alertness.

“Public interest in safety issues is substantial and this is likely to persist,” the Dutch Cabinet wrote in its request for advice to the Scientific Council for Government Policy (wrr) that instigated the report at hand. The wrr was asked to study in particular how individual responsibility for safety issues can be strengthened in society.

The current high level of safety is a product of the efforts of many. Not only the government takes responsibility for safety issues; businesses and individual citizens do so as well. Moreover, in this area many non-governmental organizations are active, increasingly safety policies are developed in international arenas. Expertise plays a crucial role as many threats cannot be identified, or not on time, on the basis of only everyday experience. For example, the carcinogenicity of particular chemical substances can only be established through extensive and often time-consuming scientific research. At the same time, it is not possible to steer blindly on expertise. In weighing policy options not just technical aspects are relevant; normative issues and other considerations need to be taken into account as well.

Most policy problems that present themselves are highly domain-specific. For obvious reasons, flood prevention calls for other measures than the transport of hazardous substances. Still there are similarities among the various fields within the safety domain, as well as several generic problems. This report concentrates on these problems.

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This publication is part of the web-book Public Risk Canon