Science-based policy making: reality or fake news?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Daniel Guéguen: "Are the million signatures collected by Greenpeace against glyphosate more important in the eyes of the legislator than the positive opinions given by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA)?" [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Science, public opinion and policy-making.

‘Evidence-based policy-making’ constitutes one of the key slogans of the Juncker Commission and the Better Regulation agenda. But reality reveals a wide gap between theory and practice, writes Daniel Guéguen.

Daniel Guéguen is a European lobbyist and professor at the College of Europe.

The word ‘evidence’ implies objectivity based on facts and science. But the reality reveals a wide gap between theory and practice, as demonstrated by numerous recent cases, in particular, the glyphosate affair. In the EU, cliché trumps science and emotion win over objectivity – that is my belief.

Two questions come immediately to my mind: are a million signatures collected by Greenpeace against glyphosate more important in the eyes of the legislator than the positive opinions given by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA)?

And why, unlike Greenpeace, are the plant protection industry and farming world so incapable of engaging with public opinion and mobilising local networks?

The beginning of a solution to this worrying drift involves work on three levers:

As a first priority, I consider it necessary to restore complete credibility to EU agencies – notably EFSA and ECHA – while ensuring that any opinions they deliver are respected and supported by the Commission. Get rid of the agencies’ weaknesses, give them greater resources and move in a direction where risk assessment and risk management go hand in hand – none of this seems to be an impossible task. In this context, the European Parliament’s PEST Committee has a positive role to play.

Second priority: it is vital that European trade associations wake up and adjust to the new institutional environment. Is it normal for the EU agenda to be dictated by NGOs? No, it is not. Is it normal for the great majority of industrial lobbies to maintain a defensive (and therefore losing) approach and remain incapable of communicating with authorities as well as the public? In lobbying, modern communication is direct, instantaneous and personalised. It goes out via social media. When will people understand that mass distribution of industry position papers is obsolete lobbying?

Third priority: one hopes that the European Commission, which enjoys the monopoly of legislative initiative, will one day move towards more transparency and simplification of implementing measures. There are barely 20 people in Brussels capable of explaining precisely the decision-making process for endocrine disruptors. To paraphrase a famous quote: “Give me good procedures and I’ll give you effective regulations.”

The influence of emotion, subjectivity and cliché over EU rules grows constantly, affecting all policies linked to public opinion. The fear is that the worst is yet to come. There is an emerging trend in favour of replacing risk-based assessment (e.g. the obligation of producers to respect maximum residue limits) with a hazard-based approach that requires you to demonstrate a total absence of risk in your product.

At first sight, this development might seem logical, but current methods for evaluating substances have become so refined that nothing – not even the tiniest trace – can escape analysis, with the result that anything could be considered dangerous in one way or another, by any ‘expert’ or activist.

Therefore, it is absolutely essential to clarify the exact role of science in regulation, strengthen the credibility of scientific authorities assisting the EU legislator and draw inspiration from (but not duplicate) the US Food and Drug Administration, where genuine scientific expertise prevails over all other considerations.

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