A 2013 report by the European Environment Agency analyses a range of chemical and technological innovations and the long-term effectiveness of policies designed to minimize risks to health and the environment resulting from their use (see go.nature.com/ajxkkt). As contributors to the report, we call for more proactive forms of governance to incorporate greater social responsibility in new technologies.
The report shows that, rather than stifling innovation, preventive policies can promote investment in safer alternatives and in managing risk. When precautionary regulatory action was taken on the basis of plausible yet incomplete evidence of harm, cases of over-regulation were rare. More often, such action was later shown to be justified.
Twenty case studies of potential hazards — including leaded petrol, nicotinoid pesticides (recently banned in Europe) and mercury pollution — reveal that current risk-assessment standards often prevent or delay the detection of risks. Given the number of emerging technologies that will require safety appraisal, future risk assessments will need to adopt solutions-oriented strategies that increase timeliness and efficacy.
The complex issues around emerging technologies, such as genetically modified crops, call for greater social responsibility by scientists, and for regulators to seek advice from the wider community to address safety concerns and establish principles for sustainability, utility and acceptable risk early on.
Incentives and fiscal advantages, such as public procurement, will encourage industry to adopt responsible measures. These will require social criteria to be captured in processes for public research funding, backed by an updated definition of scientific excellence.