Obama’s 21st century regulatory system will demand more innovative thinking on risk

Cross posted from the Risk Science Center Blog:

There’s a lot to like in President Obama’s perspective on 21st century regulation. Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Obama outlines his thinking behind his new executive order to review and revise a convoluted and potentially disruptive federal regulatory system. But if regulation in the 21st century is to be effective in protecting people and enabling economic growth, it needs to become more sophisticated and innovative, while avoiding the traps of over-simplistic thinking.

I’m glad Obama puts a strong emphasis on public health in his op ed. It’s all too easy easy for these conversations to degenerate into regulatory bashing in favor of business freedom – a trap Obama deftly avoids. Yet he is spot on when he calls out the dangers of out-dated and ill-conceived regulations potentially stifling innovation and economic growth – an outcome which ultimately also impacts on public health, albeit in less directly measurable ways.

The trick is to find that sweet spot between preventing harm while supporting the economy.

As society and the technologies it relies on become ever-more complex, finding this sweet spot is becoming increasingly difficult. New technologies are spawning new products that cause harm in new and sometimes unanticipated ways. An ever more interconnected global society is eroding traditional command-and-control oversight frameworks. And a growing flood of tantalizing yet often incomplete data is creating confusion over what is safe, and what is not.

Yet the same changes that are making old-style regulation increasingly difficult are also opening up opportunities for innovation in how we protect people. Group-sourcing expertise and perspectives in new ways can help craft more responsive regulation. Novel approaches to collecting and analyzing information are able to offer new insights into balancing safe and profitable practices. New approaches to science and engineering are beginning to push risk management up the innovation chain – engineering risk out of products from the get-go. And new technologies are delivering new ways to evaluate and manage potential risks.

As well as cutting out the dead wood from the existing system, 21st century regulation also needs to innovate and take advantage of these opportunities. This will bring us closer to finding that sweet spot where both safety and economic success are achieved. But to achieve it, we will have to be increasingly sophisticated about how we think about risk and regulation.

It’s all to easy to over-react to potential risks, and to push for action based on gut instincts rather than clear evidence. This is why formal regulation starts with evidence-informed decision-making, rather than instinct and assumption. But there is also a danger of the pendulum swingging the other way, and instinctive assumptions leading to inadequate regulation.

Although the point was well-made, I must confess to being a little concerned by Obama’s comment on saccharin when he stated that “if it goes in your coffee, it is not hazardous waste”. When it comes to risk, dose and context are everything – what is good in moderation in one place can be deadly if present in excess in another. Saccharin is now widely acknowledged as safe for human consumption – hence Obama’s quip. But it won’t always be the case that what is good in small quantities is also good when dumped by the ton in the environment – especially if it has potential long-term, environmental or trans-generational impacts.

Rather than rely on over-simplistic assumptions on risk, we need now more than ever to develop sophisticated, evidence-informed yet socially, economically and politically responsive approaches to human health risks. This is at the heart of risk science, where evidence and understanding drive the process of reducing risks.

Hopefully it will also be at the heart of US regulatory reform, as we continue to strive for the sweet spot between safety and success.

- all to often, these conversations emphasize the need to prevent regulation interfering with business concerns. Obama on the other hand places human health high on the agenda. But at the same time he acknowledges the importance of good regulation in