This paper analyzes the prospects for introducing the precautionary principle in water protection policy. In situations where a problem enters the political agenda and scientific uncertainties remain about causes or effects, political actors can justify state intervention based on the precautionary principle. It allows for public action even if risks related to the problem remain unclear. While the precautionary principle is widely applied in health and environmental policy fields all over the world, the mechanisms leading to its adoption are not fully understood. To close this gap, the paper investigates decision-makers preferences for the precautionary principle and further asks: Which factors promote political actors’ preferences for precautionary policy measures? In order to answer this question we study the case of emerging micropollutants—a water quality issue that recently entered political agendas, where many uncertainties remain about sources and effects. We rely on data gathered through a standardized survey among the political elite in Switzerland, which represents one of the first countries that adopted policy measures to reduce micropollutants in water bodies, despite the uncertainties that remain. Results analyzed through a temporal network autocorrelation model reveal that actors embedded in collaborative governance arrangements have the tendency to prefer precautionary action. Certain aspects of policy design, such as problem prioritization and target group membership, also impact the prospects for introducing the precautionary principle.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
We employ the term “social interactions” as an umbrella term which includes different types of relations between actors such as collaboration, negotiations, advice-seeking, information exchange.
http://www.fischnetz.ch/index_e.htm (last access on August 21, 2017).
http://www.snf.ch/en/researchinFocus/nrp/nrp50-endocrine-disruptors-relevance-to-humans-animals-andecosystems/Pages/default.aspx (last access on August 21, 2017).
Population equivalent of more than 100,000.
Population equivalent of 10,000 to 100,000.
A total of 12 actors reported having a common position or not having participated enough to respond to the survey questions; another six actors (i.e., federal agencies who must formally partake in consultations internal to the government, but who do not necessarily have a stake in the issue of aquatic micropollutants) only partly responded to the survey; three actors did not reply.
Ajzen, I., & Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding attitudes and predicting social behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Andersen, M. S. (2001). Economic instruments and clean water: Why institutions and policy design matter. Paris: OECD.
Baumgartner, F., & Jones, B. (1993). Agendas and instability in american politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bickerstaff, K., & Walker, G. (2001). Public understandings of air pollution: The ‘localisation’ of environmental risk. Global Environmental Change, 11(2), 133–145. doi:10.1016/S0959-3780(00)00063-7.
Burkhardt-Holm, P., Peter, A., & Segner, H. (2002). Decline of fish catch in Switzerland Project Fishnet: A balance between analysis and synthesis. Aquatic Sciences, 64(1), 36-54.
Cairney, P. (2016). The politics of evidence-based policymaking. London: Palgrave McMillan.
Choi, B., Pang, T., Lin, V., Puska, P., Sherman, G., Goddard, M., et al. (2005). Can scientists and policy makers work together? Journal of Epistemic Community and Health, 59, 632–637. doi:10.1136/jech.2004.031765.
Christoforou, T. (2003). The precautionary principle and democratizing expertise: A European legal perspective. Science and Public Policy, 30(3), 205–211.
Christoforou, T. (2004). The regulation of genetically modified organisms in the European Union: The interplay of science, law and politics. Common Market Law Review, 41(3), 637–709.
Cleven, C. D., Howard, A. S., Little, J. L., & Yu, K. (2013). Identifying “known unknowns” in commercial products by mass spectrometry. LCGC Chromatography Online, 31(2), 114–125.
Crona, B., & Parker, J. (2012). Learning in support of governance: Theories, methods, and a framework to assess how bridging organizations contribute to adaptive resource governance. Ecology and Society, 17(1), 32.
Culpepper, P. D. (2011). Quiet politics and business power. Corporate control in Europe and Japan (Cambridge studies in comparative politics). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Daughton, C. G. (2004). Non-regulated water contaminants: Emerging research. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 24(7–8), 711–732. doi:10.1016/j.eiar.2004.06.003.
Dermont, C., Ingold, K., Kammermann, L., & Stadelmann-Steffen, I. (2017). Bringing the policy making perspective in: A political science approach to social acceptance. Energy Policy, 108, 359–368.
Dietz, T., Ostrom, E., & Stern, P. C. (2003). The struggle to govern the commons. Science, 302(5652), 1907–1912. doi:10.1126/science.1091015.
Doris, D. (2007). Voluntary approaches to environmental problems: Exploring the rise of nontraditional public policy. Policy Studies Journal, 35(2), 165–180.
EC. (2000). Communication from the Commission on the precautionary principle COM (2000) 1 final. Brussels: European Commission.
Edelenbos, J., van Buuren, A., & van Schie, N. (2011). Co-producing knowledge: Joint knowledge production between experts, bureaucrats and stakeholders in Dutch water management projects. Environmental Science & Policy, 14, 675–684.
Fischer, M. (2014). Coalition structures and policy change in a consensus democracy. Policy Studies Journal, 42(3), 344–366.
Fischer, M., & Leifeld, P. (2015). Policy forums as intermediary institutions: Why do they exist and what are they good for? Policy Sciences, 48(3), 363–382. doi:10.1007/s11077-015-9224-y.
Fisher, E. (2002). Precaution, precaution everywhere: Developing a “common understanding” of the precautionary principle in the European Union. Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law, 9(1), 7–28.
Franzen, A., & Vogl, D. (2013). Two decades of measuring environmental attitudes: A comparative analysis of 33 countries. Global Environmental Change, 23(5), 1001–1008.
Funtowicz, S., & Ravetz, J. (1993). The emergence of post-normal science. In R. von Schomberg (Ed.), Science, politics and morality: Scientific uncertainty and decision-making. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Goggin, M., Bowman, A., Lester, J., & O’Toole, L. (1990). Implementation theory and practice: Toward a third generation. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Little, Brown.
Götz, C., Kase, R., & Hollender, J. (2010). Mikroverunreinigungen—Beurteilungskonzept für organische Spurenstoffe aus kommunalem Abwasser. Studie im Autrag des BAFU. Dübendorf: Eawag.
Henry, A. D. (2011). Ideology, power, and the structure of policy networks. Policy Studies Journal, 39(3), 361–383.
Hollender, J., Singer, H., & McArdell, C. (2008). Polar organic micropollutants in the water cycle. In P. Hlavinek, O. Bonacci, J. Marsalek, & I. Mahrikova (Eds.), Dangerous pollutants (xenobiotics) in urban water cycle (pp. 103–116). Dodrecht: Springer.
Howlett, M. (2009). Governance modes, policy regimes and operational plans: A multi-level nested model of policy instrument choice and policy design. Policy Science, 42, 73–89.
Howlett, M. (2014). From the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ policy design: Design thinking beyond markets and collaborative governance. Policy Sciences, 47(3), 187–207.
ICES. (1993). Report of the working group on methods of fish stock assessment. Copenhagen: International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.
Innes, J., & Booher, D. (2003). Collaborative policymaking: Governance through dialogue. Deliberative policy analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jones, B., & Baumgartner, F. (2005). The politics of attention: How government prioritizes problems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jordan, A. (2001). The precautionary principle in the European Union. In T. O’Riordan, J. Cameron, & A. Jordan (Eds.), Reinterpreting the precautionary principle (pp. 143–162). London: Cameron May.
Klinke, A., & Renn, O. (2002). A new approach to risk evaluation and management: Risk-based, precaution-based, and discourse-based strategies. Risk Analysis, 22(6), 1071–1094.
Knoepfel, P., & Bättig, C. (2007). Environmental policy analyses: Learning from the Past for the future—25 Years of research. Berlin: Springer.
Knoke, D. (1994). Networks of elite structure and decision making. In S. Wasserman & J. Galaskiewicz (Eds.), Advances in social network analysis: Research in the social and behavioral sciences (pp. 274–295). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Knoke, D., Pappi, F. U., Broadbent, J., & Tsujinaka, Y. (1996). Comparing policy networks. Labor politics in the U.S., Germany, and Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Koppenjan, J. F. M., & Klijn, E.-H. (2004). Managing uncertainties in networks: A network approach to problem solving and decision making. London: Routledge.
Landry, R., & Varone, F. (2005). The choice of policy instruments: Confronting the deductive and the interactive approaches. In F. P. Eliadis, M. M. Hill, & M. Howlett (Eds.), Designing government. From instruments to governance (pp. 106–131). Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Laumann, E., Marsden, P., & Prensky, D. (1983). The boundary specification problem in network analysis. In R. Burt & M. Minor (Eds.), Applied network analysis: A methodological introduction. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Leach, W., Neil, P., & Sabatier, P. (2002). Stakeholder partnerships as collaborative policymaking: Evaluation criteria applied in watershed management in California and Washington. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 21(4), 645–670.
Leach, W., Weible, C., Vince, S., Siddiki, S., & Calanni, J. (2014). Fostering learning through collaboration: Knowledge acquisition and belief change in marine aquaculture partnerships. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 24(3), 591–622. doi:10.1093/jopart/mut011.
Leifeld, P., & Cranmer, S. (2016). TNAM: Temporal network autocorrelation models. R Package Version 1.6.2. https://cran.r-project.org/web/packages/tnam/index.html.
Lubell, M. (2004). Collaborative environmental institutions: All talk and no action? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 23(3), 549–573. doi:10.1002/pam.20026.
Manson, N. A. (2002). Formulating the precautionary principle. Environmental Ethics, 24(3), 263–274.
Mayntz, R. (1979). Public bureaucracies and policy implementation. International Social Science Journal, 31(4), 633–645.
Metz, F., & Fischer, M. (2016). Policy diffusion in the context of international river basin management. Environmental Policy and Governance, 26(4), 257–277.
Metz, F., & Ingold, K. (2014). Sustainable wastewater management: Is it possible to regulate micropollution in the future by learning from the past? A policy analysis. Sustainability, 6(4), 1992–2012.
Morris, J. (2000). Defining the precautionary principle. In J. Morris (Ed.), Rethinking risk and the precautionary principle (pp. 1–21). Oxford: Butterworth-Heinmann.
Müller, M. S. (2011). Polar organic micro-pollutants in the River Rhine: Multi-compound screening and mass flux studies of selected substances. Berlin: Eawag, Technische Universität Berlin Dübendorf.
Myers, N. J., & Raffensperger, C. (2006). Precautionary tools for reshaping environmental policy. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Nelson, T. (2004). Policy goals, public rhetoric, and political attitudes. Journal of Politics, 66(2), 581–605. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2508.2004.00165.x.
Norton, B. (2005). Sustainability: A philosophy of adaptive ecosystem management. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Nowotny, H., Scott, P., & Gibbons, M. (2001). Re-thinking science: Knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press.
O’Riordan, T., & Cameron, J. (1994). Interpreting the precautionary principle. Abingdon-on-Thames: Earthscan.
O’Toole, L. J. (2000). Research on policy implementation: assessment and prospects. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 10(2), 263–288.
Prakash, A., & Potoski, M. (2013). Global private regimes, domestic public law: ISO 14001 and pollution reduction. Comparative Political Studies, 47(3), 369–394. doi:10.1177/0010414013509573.
R Development Core Team. (2014). R: A language and environment for statistical computing (Version 3.1.2 ed.). Vienna: R Foundation for Statistical Computing.
Resnik, D. (2003). Is the precautionary principle unscientific? Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 34, 329–344.
Resnik, D. (2004). The precautionary principle and medical decision making. Journal of Medicine and Philisophy, 29(3), 281–299.
Richardson, S., & Ternes, T. (2011). Water analysis: Emerging contaminants and current issues. Analytical Chemistry, 83(12), 4614–4648.
Rockstrom, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, A., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., et al. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263), 472–475. doi:10.1038/461472a.
Sandin, P. (1999). Dimensions of the precautionary principle. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal, 5(5), 889–907. doi:10.1080/10807039991289185.
Schwarzenbach, R., Escher, B., Fenner, K., Hofstetter, T., Johnson, A., Von Gunten, U., et al. (2006). The challenge of micropollutants in aquatic systems. Science, 313(5790), 1072–1077.
Scott, T. (2015). Does collaboration make any difference? Linking collaborative governance to environmental outcomes. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 34(3), 537–566. doi:10.1002/pam.21836.
Scott, J., & Vos, E. (2002). The juridification of uncertainty: Observations on the ambivalence of the precautionary principle within the EU and the WTO. In C. Joerges & R. Dehousse (Eds.), Good governance in Europe’s integrated market (pp. 253–286). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
UNEP. (1992). 1992 Rio declaration on environment and development. In U. N. E. Programme (Ed.), UN Doc. A/CONF.151/26 (Vol. I). Rio de Janeiro: UNEP.
van Asselt, M., & Vos, E. (2006). The precautionary principle and the uncertainty paradox. Journal of Risk Research, 9(4), 313–336. doi:10.1080/13669870500175063.
Vogel, J. (2004). Tunnel vision: The regulation of endocrine disruptors. Policy Sciences, 37, 277–303.
Von der Ohe, P. C., Dulio, V., Slobodnik, J., Deckere, E. D., Kühne, R., Ebert, R.-U., et al. (2011). A new risk assessment approach for the prioritization of 500 classical and emerging organic microcontaminants as potential river basin specific pollutants under the European Water Framework Directive. Science of the Total Environment, 409(11), 2064–2077.
Voss, J.-P., Smith, A., & Grin, J. (2009). Designing long-term policy: Rethinking transition management. Policy Sciences, 42, 275–302.
Weible, C. M., & Sabatier, P. A. (2009). Coalitions, science, and belief change: Comparing adversarial and collaborative policy subsystems. Policy Studies Journal, 37(2), 195–212. doi:10.1111/j.1541-0072.2009.00310.x.
Wiener, J., & Rogers, M. (2002). Comparing precaution in the United States and Europe. Journal of Risk Research Policy, 5(4), 317–349.
This work was suppported by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The authors would like to thank Laurence Brandenberger for her advice.
Appendix: Actor list
Appendix: Actor list
|Full name||Type of actor|
|Swiss Association for Agricultural Development and Rural Areas||Science, laboratories, consulting|
|Western Swiss Association for Water and Air Protection||Environmental association|
|Federal Office for the Environment, Department of Air Protection and Chemicals||National-level state actor|
|Federal Office for the Environment, Department for Water||National-level state actor|
|Federal Office for Health||National-level state actor|
|Federal Office for Agriculture||National-level state actor|
|BMG Engineering AG||Science, laboratories, consulting|
|Conference of Cantonal Directors of Construction, Planning and Environmental Protection||Cantonal-level state actor|
|Cercl’eau||Cantonal-level state actor|
|Christian Democratic People’s Party||Political party|
|Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology||Science, laboratories, consulting|
|Sewage Treatment Plants in Large Cities Initiative||Municipalities, cities, water or wastewater association|
|Free Democratic Party. The Liberals||Political party|
|University of Applied Sciences of North-West Switzerland||Science, laboratories, consulting|
|Swiss Fishery Association||Environmental association|
|Swiss Green Party||Political party|
|Western Swiss Group of Sewage Treatment Plants Operators||Municipalities, cities, water or wastewater association.|
|Basel Chamber of Commerce||Trade association|
|Hunziker-Betatech||Science, laboratories, consulting|
|Consumer Forum||Consumer association|
|Communal Infrastructure||Municipalities, cities, water or wastewater association|
|Conference of Heads of Cantonal Offices for Environmental Protection||Cantonal-level state actor|
|Competence Network of Cantonal Laboratories for Water and Environmental Protection||Cantonal-level state actor|
|Ecotox Centre||Science, laboratories, consulting|
|Pro Natura||Environmental association|
|Swiss Farmers’ Association||Trade association|
|Swiss Trade Association||Trade association|
|Swiss Cosmetics and Detergent Association||Trade association|
|Swiss Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Industry Association||Trade association|
|Swiss Social Democratic Party||Political party|
|Swiss Gas and Water Industry Association||Municipalities, cities, water or wastewater association|
|Swiss People’s Party||Political party|
|University of Basel||Science, laboratories, consulting|
|University of Lausanne||Science, laboratories, consulting|
|National Council’s Committee on the Environment, Spatial Planning and Energy||Legislature|
|Council of State’s Committee on the Environment, Spatial Planning and Energy||Legislature|
|Association of Cantonal Chemists of Switzerland||Cantonal-level state actor|
|Swiss Water Association||Municipalities, cities, water or wastewater association|
|World Wide Fund For Nature Switzerland||Environmental association|
About this article
Cite this article
Metz, F., Ingold, K. Politics of the precautionary principle: assessing actors’ preferences in water protection policy. Policy Sci 50, 721–743 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-017-9295-z
- Precautionary principle
- Water protection policy
- Policy preferences
- Network modeling