The findings of the five-year study, which was carried out at the University of Sussex and will be presented at a conference in Brighton today, suggest there are serious limits to using the idea of 'risk' to describe the potential problems associated with new developments in science and technology.
"Its all too easy to make the mistake of using quantitative risk assessment techniques to try to understand unknowns that are really uncertainties, when it is impossible for us to work out the probability that something will happen," said Dr Adrian Ely, a research fellow at the University of Sussex' SPRU.
This has often been the complaint about European assessments of GM food. Many US scientists have challenged GM food regulation as having little theoretical basis and pandering to the fears and prejudices of its citizens.
At the IFT conference on global acceptance and sustainability of GM food this summer, Francis Smith from the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC gave an interesting American perspective of EU regulations governing GM food. She said that, fundamentally, there is an underlying fear of new technology in Europe, largely absent in the US.
Americans, she said, tended to look at the benefits. In comparison to Europeans, US consumers tended to express less fear and less distrust.
The EU, and its food safety body EFSA, therefore behaves differently. Its precautionary principle, which rules that regulators should err on the side of caution, assumes that a prevention strategy is always appropriate.
"There is little theoretical basis for this approach," argued Smith. "We're talking about regulations addressing perceptions and fears."
This is not the point that the University of Sussex study is making. Its point is that potential risk should be viewed as distinct from issues such as uncertainly and ambiguity. But its implications could alter the manner in which food safety bodies approach GM regulations.
In order to understand this point better, Ely plans to highlight a typology developed by professor Andy Stirling during his speech in Brighton. A typology, said Ely, is simply a way of understanding that things belong to different categories, and that we should distinguish between them.
Ely said that by considering the issues associated with risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance separately, Stirling has been able to make sense of events in a way that could be useful to policymakers internationally.
"When people talk about risks, they are usually talking about aspects of risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance," he said. "I use this typology to understand the government's decisions around GM crops and foods."
Ely argues that most policy problems - for example, climate change, GM crops or nanotechnology - involve a situation in which we don't have a full understanding of the science in question.
"There are so many complicated questions at play," said Ely. "Using a tool such as this helps us to break them down into manageable parts.
"The USA and Europe have assessed the risks from GM crops in different ways. This has led to divergent policies internationally, with bitter trade disputes as a result. This research can help us to understand the sources of the trade conflict and to move towards ways of resolving them."
Adrian Ely is Research Fellow at SPRU Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Sussex. He is presenting his paper 'Typologies of incertitude as tools for policy analysis and policy making' today at SPRU's 40th Anniversary Conference.