Citizens meeting in The Hague
On June 19, the Rathenau Institute organised a discussion meeting about how the government should deal with uncertain risks to public health and the environment in relation to new technologies. 40 people of different ages, professions and backgrounds came together in The Hague to exchange ideas. The meeting led to lively discussions about questions such as: how important is it as a society to be careful with new technologies? Can you be too careful? And who should be held responsible?
The discussion meeting took place in the context of RECIPES, a project within the European Horizon2020 Programme. Organisations from seven European countries are involved in this project. In May and June, research institutes in Italy, Bulgaria, Norway and Denmark organised a similar meeting around the same questions. The outcomes of these discussions are used to take into account the opinions, presuppositions and interests of society for advising the European Commission.
Working on safety of new technology
The RECIPES project started in January 2019 and will last three years. An important goal of the project is to investigate whether adjustments are needed in the European policy for testing and guaranteeing the safety of new technologies. The RECIPES partners work together with various stakeholders on tools for appropriate policy, in the form of, for example, guidelines that can help with the responsible embedding of innovations in society.
Risks and innovation
Innovation plays an important role in bringing new products to the market that can be attractive or even of vital importance to society. Examples are clothing that is water-repellent thanks to nanotechnology, genetically modified food crops that are more resistant to drought or new pesticides that can protect crops against insects. While these innovations can provide solutions to societal challenges, they often are surrounded by risks to human and environmental safety. For example, nanoparticles can cause problems for the respiratory tract and genetically modified crops may disrupt existing ecosystems, while some pesticides increase the risk of massive bee extinction. These three cases formed the starting point for the conversations on 19 June.
Why this citizens meeting?
It is important to include the views of stakeholders on innovation and precaution during the project. Not only the perspectives of researchers, companies, farmers and regulators, but also the views of users and stakeholders who often experience the advantages and disadvantages of new technology to an unequal extent. How should we deal with the tension between innovation and ensuring safety for people and the environment according to them?
During the meeting in The Hague, people discussed in small groups questions such as: how important is precaution towards innovation with new technologies? Can you also be too careful? Who is responsible for demonstrating that a technology is safe: the companies that develop it or the government? And how can we take into account all the interests of parties that do not have a direct representative, such as the environment or future generations? These issues sparked lively discussions among the participants. Prior to the discussion, participants completed a questionnaire in order to form an opinion about the topics of the discussions. The results from these questionnaires could consequently be compared with insights that emerged during the discussions.
Follow-up research into precaution and safety with new technology
The results from the meeting are bundled with those of the other four countries in a joint publication. In the coming year, the Rathenau Institute will also be working on two other cases in which precaution plays a role: genetic modification of organisms and artificial intelligence.