EU policymaking: Rooted in science?


European policymakers face a difficult choice when authorising new technologies such as GMOs, as they often find themselves caught between conflicting expert safety advice and calls to respect the precautionary principle when scientific evidence is insufficient.

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EU policymaking is largely based on expertise and involves handling complex technical information at different levels. While such expert-based regulatory policy is seen by some as a guarantee of rational decision-making, it is sometimes perceived as technocratic and opaque.  

Since the mid-1990s, steps have been taken to improve the quality of science used in decision-making by establishing independent scientific committees and independent risk-assessment agencies. Examples of these include those in place for medicines and food. Since 2001, the debate on the role of scientific evidence in policymaking has been seen in a wider context of European governance and better regulation.

In its 2001 White Paper on European governance, the European Commission recognised that scientific and other expert advice was playing an increasingly significant role in EU decision-making. Expert advice particularly serves to "anticipate and identify" potential problems and uncertainties facing the EU, helping its institutions to make decisions and to communicate risks effectively. 

In 2000, the Commission published a communication on the so-called 'precautionary principle', covering "cases where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain and preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen by the EU".