Precautionary Principle:
Risk Uncertainty and Rational Action
Date: Wednesday 1st October 2003

For a full report of the day's events, as well as copies of the presentations and photos, please refer to the bottom of this page.

Professor Renn addressed the policy dilemma at the heart of risk management which is that policies responding to the risk perceptions of lay people will over regulate, whilst those entirely based on scientific expertise may not be supported by the public. Three generic characteristics underlie the definition of risk: complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. According to Renn, these characteristics are often confused in the public debate due to linguistic blurring of definitions. The factors that matter in assessing risk, he said, include not only the classic components, probability and potential for harm, but also criteria such as remaining uncertainties, ubiquity, persistence, delayed effects, equity violations (i.e. is the risk fair - or not - for all) and the potential for social mobilisation.

Definitions of precaution are varied - a general definition is an act of caution in the face of uncertainty. Three elements are always involved in the elaboration of the precautionary principle: the role of science; the role of legislation and the role of subjective interpretation. The EC Communication on the Precautionary Principle in 2000 laid down useful criteria for guidance. Renn defined five risk management strategies to cope with the different combination of complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity : routine risk; complex and sophisticated risk; highly uncertain risk; highly controversial risk; and risk involving 'clear and present danger' where fast response is needed. The goal of this exercise should be to avoid irreversible effects and to strive for resilience rather than optimal risk modelling. To identify the appropriate balance of precaution (i.e., between being too cautious and risking to impede innovation or being not cautious enough and hence risking to damage people and the environment) is best achieved via negotiation between the stakeholders involved. Finally, Renn concluded, the strategy of prevention is essentially risk crisis management to deal quickly with clearly intolerable risks.

  Speaker: Prof Ortwin Renn - Chair of Environmental Sociology at the University of Stuttgart  
  Professor Ortwin Renn is Chair of the Board of Directors at the Center of Technology Assessment in Baden-Württemberg, and professor for Environmental Sociology at the University of Stuttgart. He also directs the non-profit organization DIALOGIC. Dr. Renn has conducted numerous research projects on risk perception, risk management, conflict resolution, technology assessment, and environmental policy making. He experimented with new models of citizens' participation and developed new approaches to risk communication. His current research includes environmental economics and sociology, risk perception, risk analysis and risk communication, regional concepts of sustainable development, citizen participation in risk management, attitudes towards technology, and social movements. He is the author/co-author or editor/co-editor of more than 30 books and more than 250 articles in journals or chapters in books. .
  Hosting MEP: Mme Béatrice Patrie  

A graduate from the "École nationale de la magistrature", Mrs Béatrice Patrie performed as a Judge for twenty years at the Ministry of Justice and the Paris Regional Court, as well as the President of the Saint-Quentin regional court. She has been a strong defender of individual rights, and as such undertook the role of Secretary-General, then President of the French Association of Judicial Officers, as well as Member of the administrative council of European Judicial Officers for Democracy and Freedom (1990-1994). Actively involved in politics since 1994, Mrs Patrie was elected to the European Parliament in 1999 as a member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy. Mrs Patrie acted as Rapporteur for the Commission Green Paper on European Union Consumer Protection and Rapporteur for the Commission communication on the precautionary principle.

  Co-sponsor: EPC  

The European Policy Centre is a leading Brussels-based 'think tank' whose mission is to contribute to the construction of a Europe equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century by advancing the process of European integration. To achieve this, The EPC encourages a structured debate among all significant interest groups, and channels the results to policy-makers. The Better Regulation Programme integrates the work of the Centre on better regulation and other "risk-related" activities. It includes the Risk Forum; major projects and workshops, seminars and conferences.

Website :

Click on thumbnails to view larger photographs.

Prof. Ortwin Renn with Dr. Simon Webb, representing AllChemE and Colin Humphris from Cefic Mme Béatrice Patrie, MEP, giving an introductory address Representatives from industry, the Parliament, the Commission, NGOs and scientific institutions attended the seminar Prof. Renn describes various levels of risk Prof. Ortwin Renn describes a ladder approach to precaution Mr. Rolf Linkhor, MEP, presents his viewpoint on precaution MEPs Mme Patrie and Mr. Linkhor in discussion at the end of the seminar
  Documents to download  

Full report

Professor Renn's presentation
EPC presentation
Cordis News article
Food Navigator article
  Prof. Ortwin Renn  
Hosting MEP:
  Mme Béatrice Patrie


The European Policy Centre
The AllChemE seminars are an open area for debate. The opinions expressed in the AllChemE seminars do not necessarily reflect the views of AllChemE or its partner organisations.