Science, risk and public policy : OPs, GM crops, BSE and MMR : a comparative study of the use of science in policy-making in Britain
Over the past twenty years there has been much controversy and public anxiety over issues relating to environmental and health-related hazards. Many of these issues result from the modem state's enthusiasm for ever-increasing economic growth and strong support for the wealth-creating potential of new technologies. Yet some sections of society are concerned about science's potential for harm as well as its potential for good. The problem for governments is-to work out how science can achieve the objective of developing wealthcreating technologies, and at the same time solve the problems for people and the environment that such technologies cause. The UK Government's use of scientific advice in many recent environmental and health-related issues raises serious questions about its success in striking the right balance between harnessing science for its benefits, and protecting the public from its potential harm. The aims of this Thesis are to examine the role of science in policy-making in Britain and to evaluate how governments go about handling uncertain scientific knowledge in an age of public risk aversion and anxiety about the effects of technology on human health and the environment. The debate on this issue reveals a split between those who accept science in the service of government - the sound science approach; and those who would take a more precautionary stance, which entails that where there may be potential problems with a technology, a wider form of assessment than that carried out under the sound science approach should be carried out to ensure it is safe - the precautionary approach. The theoretical basis for this Thesis will be organized around these two approaches to environmental policy-making: sound science and precautionary methodology. The Thesis constructs a theoretical framework for these respective approaches. Research was carried out into four case studies, focusing on the way in which successive British Governments have used the advice of expert bodies to formulate policies on (1) organophosphates (OPs) in sheep dip; (2) the commercialization of GM crops; (3) the BSE crisis during the period 1985 - 1998; and (4) the MMR vaccine policy. I then analyze the case studies to see if there is a fit between them and my theoretical approaches. My conclusion is that, despite the Government's formal commitment to the precautionary approach, and some signs of adhering to a precautionary approach in some areas, sound science is still deeply embedded in the UK's statutory science advice system.