Policy ForumTechnology Governance

Precaution and governance of emerging technologies

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Science  11 Nov 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6313, pp. 710-711
DOI: 10.1126/science.aah5125


Precautionary approaches to governance of emerging technology call for constraints on the use of technology whose outcomes include potential harms and are characterized by high levels of complexity and uncertainty. Although articulated in a variety of ways, proponents of precaution often argue that its essential feature is to require more evaluation of a technology before it is put to use, which increases the burden of proof that its overall effect is likely to be beneficial. Critics argue that precaution reflects irrational fears of unproven risks—“risk panics” (1)—and would paralyze development and use of beneficial new technologies (1, 2). Advocates give credence to this view when they suggest that precaution leads necessarily to moratoria (3). Progress in the debate over precaution is possible if we can reject the common assumption that precaution can be explained by a simple high-level principle and accept instead that what it requires must be worked out in particular contexts. The 2016 report from the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) on gene drive research (4) illustrates this position. The report shows both that precaution cannot be rejected out of hand as scaremongering and that meaningful precaution can be consistent with support for science.