The downsides of innovation: Anticipate and act rather than ignore?

What can we learn from earlier examples of technological harm that could help us to minimise the costs, whilst maximising the benefits, of current and future technologies?

Technologies and innovations have helped to eradicate much poverty, enrich many lives and cure some deadly diseases. But technologies can also be malign. Asbestos turned out to be malevolent, causing hundreds of thousands of excruciating deaths and much economic damage. And while measures have been taken after the fact to protect people and environments from some harmful innovations, such as leaded petrol, we have usually acted far too late.

The first observations that asbestos was harmful were made in 1898, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the EU banned it. The first evidence that CFCs were accumulating in the stratosphere and breaking down the ozone layer that protects the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation was discovered in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the Montreal Protocol began to slowly limit global CFC emissions. Despite this action, the ‘ozone hole’ is still not fully closed.

Both time to harm and time to repair can be decades long: but could we have anticipated these hazards and acted sooner? What can we learn from earlier examples of harm that could help us to minimize the costs, whilst maximising the benefits, of current and future technologies?

The Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency has published two reports onLate Lessons from Early Warnings (EEA, 2002, 2013) which address these issues.  The reports analyse over 30 case studies to see whether more anticipatory research, and/or precautionary actions on early warnings, can minimise harm to people and the planet without compromising the benefits of new technologies and products. One of many problems identified was that the short-term costs of preventive actions are usually tangible and clearly allocated to specific risk-creating corporations, whereas the costs of failing to act are usually long-term, less tangible, and distributed across much of society, thus presenting powerful political obstacles to anticipatory actions on the early warnings of harm.

In the second volume, Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Science, precaution, innovation, the EEA found that cases of misuse of the precautionary principle are rare, the fear of its use is largely misplaced, and that precautionary actions can stimulate, rather than stultify, innovations. Some people have argued that the precautionary principle needlessly regulates technology before it has been ‘proven’ to be harmful.

But the report found few examples of true ‘false positives’, that is, instances where government regulation based on precaution turned out to be unnecessary or overly restrictive. Of the 88 alleged false positives studied for the EEA by Steffen Foss Hansen of the Technical University of Denmark, only four were robust “false positives”, and only one of these, the ban on irradiated food, was a European example; the other three were from the US.

But why is there a scarcity of genuine false positives, compared to the large number claimed by critics of the precautionary principle? A contribution to the mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality of false positives comes from the ‘product defence’ strategies of companies whose short-term profits are threatened by evidence of harm from their products. These strategies were documented in the chapter in about the tobacco industries’ response to the evidence about passive smoking, strategies later emulated by fossil fuel and other corporations.

More research into hazards
A more substantial reason for the scarcity of genuine false positives is that the burden of evidence required to prove a false positive is very high. It takes decades of monitoring and research to establish robust evidence of harmlessness. But how much research into the potential hazards of new chemicals, products, and technologies is actually carried out? And is it done in time to anticipate and minimise harm, and to prolong the commercial life of the new technologies?

An analysis of 79 environment and health journals from 1899 to 2012, which Philippe Grandjean from the University of Southern Denmark published in Late Lessons (2013), showed that most research on the hazards of chemicals had focused on well-known hazards, such as those from heavy metals, PCBs and DDT, while there was little research into emerging chemicals identified as priorities by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

What about the new bio-, nano- and information technologies?  Hansen found that between 1993 and 2013, only 0.6 percent of the EU research and technological development (RTD) budgets were set aside for research into environmental health and safety (EHS). For example, between 2007 and 2013, some €31 billion was set aside for RTD into nano-, bio-, and information and communication technologies (NBIC), but only 1.3 percent was spent on investigating their potential hazards. We already know that some nano-fibres behave like asbestos fibres in animals, yet of the €3.5 billion provided for RTD into nanotechnologies, only 2.3 percent had been spent on EHS by 2011.

This low EHS research ratio seems to be the result of a number of factors: an unintended consequence of disparate funding decisions, technological optimism, a priori assertions of safety, collective hubris and myopia. But the history of known hazards shows that without adequate anticipatory research, the cost of innovations can be huge. And as the time lag between evidence of harm and action to reduce that harm seems to be shortening, via enhanced public awareness and consumer reactions that can quickly go viral, a lack of anticipatory EHS research could lead to the premature decline of promising technologies.

We suggest that a prudent RTD/EHS ratio for nano, bio, and communications technologies would lie somewhere between 5 percent and 15 percent, depending on their intrinsic potential for harm and plausible exposure scenarios, based, for example, on their novelty, bio and eco persistence, bioaccumulation potential, and spatial range.

The Netherlands, for example, has decided to devote some 15 percent of its research budget to the EHS of nanotechnology on the basis of such considerations.

The histories of hazards described in the Late Lessons reports are likely to be repeated unless there is timely and sufficient anticipatory research into the potential hazards of emerging chemicals and technologies, research that could encourage more responsible innovation dedicated to meeting the sustainability challenges of our times. M


By David Gee & Steffen Foss Hansen

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