Article 1 May 2003

Science, risk and the price of precaution

by Sandy Starr

Imagine medicine without vaccines, penicillin, antibiotics, aspirin, X-rays, heart surgery, or the contraceptive pill.

Imagine scientific theory without Newton, Galileo, quantum mechanics, or the human genome project.

Imagine transport without aeroplanes, railways, cars or bicycles; power without gas, electricity or nuclear energy; agriculture without pesticides, hybrid crops or the plough. Imagine man had never been to the moon.

This is how scientists imagine history, had past developments been subject to the constraints of the 'precautionary principle' - the assumption that experimentation should only proceed where there is a guarantee that the outcome will not be harmful.

In the run-up to spiked's conference Panic Attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, taking place at London's Royal Institution on Friday 9 May, we asked 40 members of the international scientific community to list what significant discoveries and achievements would have been limited or prevented, if science at the time had been governed by the precautionary principle that dominates science today.

Between them, respondents came up with an A-Z of historic achievements that would have been thwarted by the precautionary principle:
  • The Aeroplane; Air conditioning; All drugs with side effects; Alternating electric power; the discovery of America; Anhydrous ammonia fertiliser; Antibiotics; Aspirin; the Automobile.

  • The Bicycle; Biotechnology; Blood transfusion; CAT scans; Chlorine; the Contraceptive Pill; Cultivation of rice and maize.

  • Digitalis; the discovery of DNA; Electric lightbulbs; Electroconvulsive therapy.

  • Fire; Gas power; GM crops; the Green Revolution; work by Galileo and Newton.

  • High-voltage power grids; Hoes; Hybrid crops; the Human genome project; the Internal combustion engine; the Internet; In vitro fertilisation; Iron; the Jet engine; Knives.

  • The Measles vaccine; Molecular biology; Neural lesions; NMR imaging; Nuclear fission; Nuclear power; Nuclear physics.

  • Oil; Open-heart surgery; Organ transplants.

  • Pasteurisation; Penicillin; the Periodic table; Pesticides; Plant domestication; Ploughs; the Polio vaccine.

  • Quantum mechanics; the Rabies vaccine; Radar; Railways; Radiation; Radio; Radioisotope thermal generators; Refrigeration; Rocket power.

  • The Smallpox vaccine; Space exploration; Steam power; Stem cell biology; the breaking of the Sound barrier.

  • The Telephone; Water supply and distribution; the Wheel.

  • X-rays.
In fact, as Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the Institute of Child Health, said, 'pretty much everything' would have been prevented or limited under the precautionary principle, as 'there is nothing we do that has no theoretical risk, and nearly everything carries some actual risk'.

Respondents included Sallie Baliunas (astrophysicist, and enviro-sci host at Tech Central Station), Professor Jim Bridges (chair of the European Commission's toxicity committee), Carl Djerassi (emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University, and father of the modern contraceptive Pill), Diran Makinde (professor of veterinary physiology at the University of Venda for Science and Technology, South Africa), Robert Nilsson (professor of toxicology at the University of Stockholm), Dr Árpád Pusztai (former chief scientist at the Rowett Research Institute), Matt Ridley (author of Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human and Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters), Lee Silver (professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, and author of Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family), Gregory Stock (director of medicine, technology and society at UCLA, and author of Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Children's Genes), and Lewis Wolpert (professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London, and author of The Unnatural Nature of Science)


Respondents were asked the following question:
  • What are the most notable scientific, medical or technological discoveries and achievements that you believe would have been limited or prevented, if science at the time had been governed by the precautionary principle? Please list one or more.
Their responses:

  • John Adams (professor of geography at University College London)

    'Fire - very dangerous - plus all other useful forms of energy, such as electricity and microwaves. Energy misdirected can cause harm, and the precautionary principle requires that if it can be misdirected, you must assume that it will be. Aspirin - a bottle taken all at once will kill you. Anything that moves - sudden, unintended stops can be painful.'

  • Toby Andrew (genetic statistician at St Thomas' Hospital, London)

    'Advocates of the precautionary principle seek to eliminate unforeseen risk. This means that any innovation worthy of the name is called into question. In their day, trains, planes and antibiotics would have been prevented. Today it's everything from GM crops to mobile phones.'

  • Sallie Baliunas (astrophysicist, and enviro-sci host at Tech Central Station)

    For Sallie Baliunas' detailed response, click here.

  • Simon Best (founder and CEO of Ardana Bioscience)

    'The public supply of electricity and gas - certainly for domestic use, and probably for all uses. The use of chlorine for chlorination of drinking water and domestic bleach - "You mean you're going to allow poison gas into my home?"'

  • Dr Nick Birch (senior research scientist at the Scottish Crop Research Institute)

    'The testing of pharmaceutical drugs on humans (for example, for HIV-positive patients); new surgical procedures (for example, open heart surgery).'

  • Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen (environmental policy specialist and editor of the journal Energy and Environment)

    'Virtually all scientific and technological discoveries, because all create, initially at least, powerful losers who can activate the prevailing ideological and political system against the new.'

  • Professor Jim Bridges (chair of the European Commission's toxicity committee)

    'The precautionary principle has been employed widely, without its application necessarily being acknowledged. For example, the demand to establish virtual zero risk for any material that could have BSE/TSE contamination is an extreme precautionary approach in the context of other food risks, that has involved enormous costs. The ban by the European Union of the use of steroid hormones as growth promoters in cattle is another example - it has led to a dispute at the World Trade Organisation, and the USA taking out trade sanctions against the European Union.

    'My biggest and unquantifiable concern, however, is that the precautionary principle may provide a major disincentive to innovation.'

  • Dr Gail Cardew (head of programmes at the Royal Institution in London)

    'Penicillin, 'the wonder drug' was first tested out on a group of mice injected with a lethal dose of Streptococcus bacteria. Howard Florey and his co-workers found that only those that had also been injected with penicillin survived. They then wanted to test the drug directly on humans, and so they gained permission to inject it into Albert Alexander, a 43-year-old policeman who had been admitted to Radcliffe Hospital with septicaemia.

    'Florey was not able to make enough penicillin to continue treatment, and so the drug had to be recycled each day from the patient's urine. After five days, the supply of penicillin that was produced for experimentation had been used up. There was no more penicillin available, and the policeman had a relapse and died five days later, giving rise to the phrase 'the treatment was a success, but the patient died'.

    'Were the precautionary principle adopted at the time, penicillin would not have been given to Albert Alexander after so little testing in animals. No doubt it would have been tested on other animals, and yet subsequently penicillin was found to be toxic to guinea pigs. In this scenario, would we have been too cautious ever to try out 'the wonder drug' on humans?'

  • Dr Bruce Charlton (clinical psychologist and author of Psychiatry and the Human Condition)

    'All major medical breakthroughs would have been prevented by the precautionary principle. I cannot think of any exceptions.'

  • Piers Corbyn (meteorologist, and founder and managing director of Weather Action)

    'Ideas in physics. As such, thought cannot be stopped, but certainly the precautionary principle as applied by the Catholic inquisition limited inquiry, and would have suppressed Galileo and others. Had they not stood up, physics and material civilisation might still be waiting to happen. Steam trains and cars were regarded as dangerous by many Victorian critics, who wanted them banned.'

  • Stuart Derbyshire (assistant professor of anaesthesiology and critical care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh)

    'We could go back a long way and consider whether anyone would have risked building a fire or rolling on a wheel. But closer to our current age, there were plenty of critics when the railroads were being constructed. Some argued that a man would die if he travelled at 30 miles per hour, and sickness was reported by those who did journey.

    'I doubt anyone would have exploded an atomic bomb in the desert, or built an atomic power station. Nobody would have pursued the sound barrier, which was reportedly like a brick wall in the sky. And with the sound barrier intact, who would have pursued rocket power, the space programme and commercial aviation?

    'In medicine, once Marie Curie demonstrated the lethality of radiation through the sacrifice of her own life it is unlikely that many folks would have been inclined to continue messing with the stuff. No CT scans, brain imaging, or contrast agents to examine your guts. The Salk polio vaccine would have never been used - it was a live vaccine that carried a five percent risk of inflicting the disease. After the disastrous results of frontal lobotomies few would have continued to pursue neural lesions as a form of therapy. Today, lesions of the basal ganglia are a successful therapy for Parkinson's disease.

    'Perhaps more important than the past breakthroughs we might have missed, however, are the future ones we surely will.

    'Xenotransplantation could benefit thousands, but is being held back by ill-founded concerns about porcine retroviruses. Vaccines could be inside staple foods such as potatoes but are not, because of spurious concerns about GM food. Unsafe vaccinations are responsible for many thousands of avoidable infections and deaths every year. Stem cells and fetal cells could be employed against devastating and deadly neurological and cardiovascular disease, but are not, because of medieval beliefs about the sanctity of embryos. Even drugs to tackle neurological disease are held back, because of ridiculous fears that a "pharmacological underclass" will be created.

    'Will I ever see a serious solution to London's traffic problem in action, cheap and abundant energy available to my home, or the effective prevention of earthquakes? Not likely.'

  • Carl Djerassi (emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University, and father of the modern contraceptive Pill)

    'The contraceptive Pill for women. The precautionary principle is also the principal reason why we still have no such Pill for men.'

  • Bill Durodié (senior research fellow at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College London)

    'For starters, X-rays; vaccination; blood transfusions; the Green Revolution.'

  • Dr Ilya Eigenbrot (science communicator and Faraday lecturer at Imperial College, London)

    'All drugs with side effects (practically all drugs from aspirin to zovirax); all flight; all space travel and space exploration; the Otto and Diesel internal combustion engines; nuclear power; the bicycle.'

  • Adam Finn (professor of paediatrics at the Institute of Child Health, University of Bristol)

    'Pretty much everything, notably all vaccines, and presumably, all drugs. There is nothing we do that has no theoretical risk, and nearly everything carries some actual risk.'

  • John Gunn (emeritus professor of forensic psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, London)

    'Electroconvulsive therapy; nuclear power; open-heart surgery.'

  • Jeff Harvey (senior scientist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology)

    'None. At the same time, the precautionary principle may have helped to avoid serious problems with respect to new technologies, that we could not have noticed at the time the new technology was introduced.'

  • Jeya Henry (professor of human nutrition at Oxford Brookes University)

    'The use and development of antibiotics, and the use of sulfa drugs.'

  • Lee Hood (president and director of the Institute for Systems Biology)

    'A detailed study of the nature and significance of human polymorphism; stem cell biology and its implications for medicine.'

  • Joe Kaplinsky (patent and technology analyst)

    'Isaac Newton risked his vision by poking a bodkin beneath his eyeball to understand how we see. Many pioneers of X-ray medicine died in determining safe doses - such self sacrifice would never get past ethics committees today. Jenner's experiments on vaccination would no doubt be condemned for transferring tissue across species, risking the creation of new human diseases. As for space travel, people would never have been sent to the moon. Our knowledge of geology would be much reduced as a result.

    'The two most important revolutions of twentieth century pure science were the discovery of quantum mechanics and the understanding of biology at a molecular level. The first has led to nuclear technologies, while the second has opened the way to biotechnology. Since these are the two key targets of the precautionary principle, it seems logical that they would have been restricted at an earlier stage.

    'But the most important discovery that would never have been made, if we had all stayed at home, is America - which would not have been discovered even once.'

  • Norman Levitt (professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, and author of Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture)

    For Norman Levitt's detailed response, click here.

  • Diran Makinde (professor of veterinary physiology at the University of Venda for Science and Technology, South Africa)

    'The motor car; the aeroplane; the discovery of DNA; gene cloning; satellites; space stations; moon travels; the mobile phone; the anti-impotence drug Viagra.'

  • John Maule (director of the Centre for Decision Research at Leeds University)

    'Heart transplants in medicine, and the jet engine in engineering. All scientifically based advances have some risk, so if one was to apply a total no-risk principle, then there would be no medical, engineering or similar advances.'

  • Johnjoe McFadden (professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey)

    'Smallpox eradication via vaccination.'

  • Peter McNaughton (Sheild professor of pharmacology at the University of Cambridge)

    'The widespread use of aspirin. This drug has considerable adverse side-effects, and would never be licensed today. The benefits, however, are enormous and growing - apart from the well-known treatment for inflammatory pain, there are uses in cancer, heart disease and prevention of deep vein thrombosis. As a result of the success of aspirin, many safer alternatives have been developed - for example, new generation COX2 inhibitors (Vioxx , Rofecoxib, etc).'

  • Vivian Moses (emeritus professor of microbiology at Queen Mary & Westfield College)

    'Electric power; gas power; the use of ploughs; the use of hoes; agriculture; smallpox vaccination; milk pasteurisation; aeroplanes; cars; railways; insecticides; antibiotics.'

  • Robert Nilsson (professor of toxicology at the University of Stockholm)

    'The nuclear fission of the uranium 238 isotope by Hahn and Strassmann in 1938, based on observations by Lise Meitner, that subsequently led to the development of nuclear energy. And the discovery of DDT by Paul Hermann Mueller, working at the Geigy laboratories in 1939. DDT has saved millions of humans from dying of malaria - it is now conveniently forgotten that DDT eradicated the disease from the entire Mediterranean region, and that Mueller was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1948 for his discovery.'

  • Ingo Potrykus (emeritus professor of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and the inventor of Golden Rice)

    'The application of the precautionary principle in science is in itself basically anti-science. Science explores the unknown, and therefore can a priori not predict the outcome.

    'I have invented and developed Golden Rice, a transgenic rice variety which produces provitamin A and which will substantially contribute to a reduction in vitamin A malnutrition, thus preventing numerous children from becoming irreversibly blind. Throughout the work, it could not be guaranteed that harmful effects could be excluded. Having Golden Rice in hand, we can exclude this possibility now, but not before we had solved the scientific problem.'

  • Channapatna Prakash (professor in plant molecular genetics, director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University)

    'Pasteurisation; immunisation; the use of chemicals and irradiation in crop variety development.'

  • Dr Árpád Pusztai (former chief scientist, Rowett Research Institute)

    'I do not think that I could quote you a single instance when the precautionary principle has prevented progress in scientific experimentation. Scientists will always do what is possible at the time but unfortunately, in many instances, they expose us and the environment to the consequences of their work regardless of the precautionary principle.'

  • Matt Ridley (author of Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human and Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, and chairman of the International Centre for Life, Newcastle upon Tyne)

    'Agriculture; iron; oil; aspirin; genetic fingerprinting; radio; steam power; the human genome project.'

  • Peter Sammonds (professor of geophysics at University College London)

    'The precautionary principle stopped the construction in the UK of an underground laboratory to research disposal of radioactive waste. The consequence is that the UK has no idea what it is going to do with the accumulating amounts of medium-level radioactive waste produced by power stations, industry, and hospitals.

    'If the precautionary principle had been applied at the beginning of the civilian nuclear power programme, there would have been no development of nuclear power.'

  • Todd Seavey (editor of, and director of publications at the American Council on Science and Health)

    'Smallpox vaccination, which plainly used a potentially deadly substance; organ transplants, which tended to kill a high number of early patients on whom they were tried; agriculture, which is one of the biggest alterations ever made to the biosphere (and some radical environmentalists openly call it a mistake).'

  • Lee Silver (professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, and author of Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family)

    'The most obvious example is in vitro fertilisation as a protocol for overcoming infertility. A less obvious, but more poignant, example is the Green Revolution, which was brought about through a process of randomly mutating seeds and selecting plants that had enhanced crop characteristics. There was no way of knowing with absolute certainty whether the random mutagenic process (done with gamma rays) would produce some kind of 'killer' crop, that could disrupt ecosystems or have a surreptitious harmful effect on people. The Green Revolution prevented widespread famine in large areas of Asia.'

  • Gregory Stock (director of medicine, technology and society at UCLA, and author of Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Children's Genes)

    'I can't think of a single advance that would have occurred under a strict precautionary regime. This goes all the way back to fire and cooked food, which are obviously fraught with danger.'

  • Professor Philip Stott (emeritus professor of biogeography at the University of London, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biogeography)

    'Vaccination/inoculation; plant domestication; the creation of cultivated rice and maize; 1920s hybrid corn; railways; knives; the wheel; the telephone; electric light bulbs - to name but a few!'

  • Peter Tyrer (professor of community psychiatry at Imperial College, London)

    'The first effective drug in medicine was digitalis, extracted by William Withering in Birmingham from the foxglove plant (Digitalis purpurea). It is a highly toxic substance, and if the precautionary principle had operated in 1780 when it was discovered, its great beneficial effects on the heart would never have got off the ground.'

  • Simon Wessely (professor of psychological medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, London)


  • Professor Michael Wilson (chief executive of Horticulture Research International)

    'Vaccination; the Green Revolution; electricity; pasteurisation.'

  • Professor Lewis Wolpert (professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London, and author of The Unnatural Nature of Science)

    'The work on motion by Galileo and Newton, the basis of ballistics. Also the periodic table, which leads to nasty bombs.'

  • John Zarnecki (professor of space science at the Open University, and principal investigator of one of the six experiments on board the Huygens probe, in the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn)

    'The use of radio isotope thermal generators (RTGs) for all spacecraft for the exploration of the outer planets. Once you go beyond the orbit of Mars, you are too far from the Sun to use solar cells to generate power, so you normally use RTGs, where a quantity of radioactive material such as plutonium is employed.

    'This has generated some opposition. The concern is that an accident on launch will contaminate the atmosphere. The major mission I am involved with, Cassini, is five-and-a-half years into its seven-year journey to the Saturnian system. Its launch in 1997 was nearly postponed, due to environmental concerns.

    'If we had followed the precautionary principle, there would have been no exploration so far of the outer Solar System - no Voyager flybys of Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus; no Galileo mission to Jupiter and Europa (with the discovery of oceans below the surface of Europa, and the possibility of primitive life existing there).'

  • Sallie Baliunas (astrophysicist, and enviro-sci host at Tech Central Station)

    'Start with just the first few of the National Academy of Engineering's list of the twentieth century's greatest engineering achievements, and apply the precautionary principle to each one.

    'Electrification of the USA - the environmental impact statements concerning the siting of power plants and transmission lines, and concerning the air and water pollutants, would still be underway. And all that electricity is produced by coal and nuclear power. The final vote of the Precautionary Principle Committee (PPC): no, we cannot electrify the country, because of the environmental risks.

    'The automobile - no way. Stay with horses and burros, whose emissions are purely organic (although toxic). The aeroplane, similar to the automobile - infrastructure impact on pristine environments, use of petroleum products, deaths from crashes, etc. Disallowed, because of demonstrable negative impacts. Stay with the horseshoe and saddle industries.

    'Water supply and distribution - possibly allowed, but with strict (and expensive) controls on siting, and with rejection of specific applications. For example, the Hoover Dam, built primarily to control destructive habitat flooding and secondarily to produce electricity, would have the undesirable side-effect of encouraging growth in a pristine, unique, irreplaceable, priceless, delicate, biodiverse ecosystem. Permission even to consider the Hoover Dam is disallowed.

    'Electronics; computers; the telephone; the internet - some items may be approved, but others are disallowed, such as mobile phones, which may cause brain cancer. Microwave ovens are also potentially dangerous. As for computers, the PPC foresees great expansion of the home market to do wasteful things, like email photos of Rex the family dog, shop online, and play computer games. All of these rely on fossil fuels, so are likely to be banned until solar and wind turbines provide most of the USA's electricity.

    'Radio and television - these use electricity, which causes known environmental havoc. One benefit, though - these may be used to promote the precautionary principle. Agricultural mechanisation - leave the land wild, free from the gnashing of the noisy, alien machinery of so-called civilisation. Air conditioning and refrigeration - there are two big problems here: electricity use (fossil fuels), and refrigerants like freon (Antarctic ozone thinning).

    'So much for engineering achievements. How about health improvements? Smallpox immunisation - Edward Jenner's dangerous experiment (deliberate infection of a human test case, then use of Jenner's inoculation, untested for safety), plus the fact that smallpox vaccination has known risks associated with it, rule out smallpox immunisation. Immunisation against other scourges - a similar ruling to that for smallpox. No vaccination is completely harmless.

    'The contraceptive Pill - this may be associated with increased risk of some cancers. DDT - this has saved so many lives from arthropod-borne infectious diseases, that the National Academy of Sciences wrote in 1970: 'To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT.' But it was hypothesised that DDT may cause breast cancer, reduction in raptor population, biomagnification 'up the food chain', and other shopworn mantras, so it is disallowed. (Note to PPC: the known destruction of raptors by wind turbines means that they, too, should be disallowed under precaution.)

    'And what about agricultural improvements to feed humankind? Hybrid crops - these are all human-made freaks of nature, that cannot be loosed upon the ecosystem. Anhydrous ammonia fertiliser - although this allows high yields of some crops, it is artificial. Manure, a harmonious organic fertiliser, is preferred under precaution.'  (Return to list)

  • Norman Levitt (professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, and author of Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture)

    'As far as biomedicine grows, the picture is rather chilling. Carl Djerassi, inventor of the contraceptive Pill, has declared that had he been forced to deal with the restrictions and interference that are commonplace these days in biomedical research, he would never have set to work on the birth control project.

    'On a more speculative level, it is obvious that vaccination - from smallpox, to rabies, to polio and measles - would have had a difficult time emerging as a standard preventative and curative technique, had it been confronted by a rigorous precautionary principle. In such a scenario, the ultimate toll in human lives is almost incalculable.

    'Likewise, some medical techniques that are now commonplace - open-heart surgery, for instance - once had to pass through a 'heroic' stage, which would have been blockaded by a strong precautionary principle. The same is probably true of many of our standard diagnostic techniques, specifically X-rays, and related methods like CAT scans, NMR imaging, and so forth.

    'Methods of insect control and suppression of other biological vectors in parasitic disease - malaria, for instance - would never have been put in place under a precautionary regime. Fears of conjectural health risk from the pesticides themselves, as well as environmental concerns, would have swamped the valid arguments for the employment of such techniques. When DDT became unavailable because of pressure from environmentalists concerned with wildlife, malaria control projects collapsed worldwide, with horrid epidemiological consequences.

    'At a more basic level, research programs in molecular biology would have been badly crippled. The now-standard tricks associated with 'genetic engineering' - restriction enzymes and the polymerase chain reaction - would have had a difficult time making their way into the armamentarium of investigators.

    'Turning to technology, many everyday devices that we (rightly) use without much thought of danger would have been stifled or delayed by a precautionary principle. Radar was developed and perfected under the pressure of military necessity, but if peacetime conditions had prevailed along with the precautionary ethos, radar would never have become commonplace. High-powered radar emits microwaves at sufficient intensity to harm or kill anyone standing directly in front of the antenna.

    'By the same token, I doubt that the system of high-voltage power grids, standard in the industrial world, would ever have been allowed to take shape - despite the fact that no serious evidence has ever emerged that low-frequency electromagnetic radiation is harmful. Thinking even further back, it's doubtful that precautionists would ever have allowed the standard system of alternating current for household use to be put in place - we all know how easy it is to get a lethal shock from an electrical outlet!

    'Coming back to pure science, precautionism would have strangled research in high-energy particle physics, which depends on huge, powerful devices generating super-intense beams of particles, that would be deadly to anyone standing in the way (which no one has ever done, of course). Instruments like the particle accelerators at CERN, Fermilab, and Stanford would never have been approved by monitors applying a strong version of the precautionary principle. This kind of skittishness actually played a role in the quashing of the superconducting supercollider.'  (Return to list)

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