Risk-based policy-making

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Recent debates on issues such as GMOs and the review of the European chemicals policy have sparked heated discussions among stakeholders about the analysis and assessment of the underlying risks and the way in which these can be managed and communicated. Questions about the definition of risk, the objectivity of scientific information and the role that risk analysis should play in policy decisions are at the heart of the debates.

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When talking about risk-based decision-making, it is important to understand the concepts this approach is based on. In particular, there is often some confusion over the terms of ‘risk’ versus ‘hazard’ as well as the concept of risk management. The following definitions are therefore essential: 

Hazard is the potential to cause harm. A good example would be a chemical substance which, if in contact with humans, could cause serious health problems. 

Risk on the other hand is the likelihood of harm to actually occur. This normally depends on the degree of exposure to a given hazard. For example, a very low exposure to a highly hazardous chemical may result in a low risk, while on the other hand a high exposure to a substance of very low hazard may result in a moderate or even high risk. In other words, for there to be a risk, there must be both the hazard and the exposure to the hazard. 

Risk management describes the process of weighing up the policy options with regards to a controversial issue such as GMOs or chemicals in consultation with all the stakeholders. By looking at the risks involved, as well as at the risk perception of the public, policy-makers take decisions about what to do about the risk, communicate their decision, see through its implementation and evaluate the results. 

Risk perception refers to the way the public and other stakeholders perceive any given risk. This can be quite different from the scientific evidence provided, such as in the case of GMOs in human food. Understanding the risk perception is crucial as it can make debate highly charged and helps determine the best ways to communicate the risk. 

Risk communication is key to gain stakeholder acceptance of policy decisions. It may include economic, social and ethical values as well as the scientific facts. Policy-makers used to take a top-down approach to risk communication (from regulator to public), whereas a more modern approach encourages public and stakeholders to participate actively in the communication process through public consultations, hearings etc. 

Precautionary principle : In 2000, the Commission published a communication on the so-called ‘precautionary principle’, saying that this covered "cases where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain and preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that 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". Applying the precautionary principle is a risk management policy decision.