More transparency needed in science, as experts take fight to the ‘flat-earthers’

Members of the Commission's high-level scientific expert group aim to improve the way the EU executive receives and uses scientific advice. [European Commission]

This article is part of our special report Fact-checking science.

There have been big changes in the way the EU institutions receive and use scientific advice but concerns remain that there is still not enough transparency in the process.

When Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission started its mandate in 2015, it did so without the post of a chief scientific adviser. Instead, it has relied on the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) to develop policies and legislation.

Previously, a chief scientific adviser was available to the president of the Commission to provide insight into a variety of topics but the position was abolished in part due to concerns about transparency and as a result of a controversial GMO debate.

Since then, SAM has attempted to provide independent advice on critical policy topics. It is complemented by the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment division (STOA), which fulfils a similar role for lawmakers.

At an event in the Parliament on Tuesday (23 January), hosted by British MEP Julie Girling (ECR group), representatives from the institutions, agencies and private sector got together to discuss how science, particularly how it is used, can build trust in the EU.

Commission official Robert Schröder and chief scientist of the European Food Safety Agency Marta Hugas both agreed that more can be done to increase transparency in this area, claiming that there is currently a danger that trust in science might be decreasing.

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Schröder, who is research Commissioner Carlos Moedas’ right-hand man, warned that the Commission cannot achieve that “in isolation”, while Hugas explained that transparency is more than just “publishing information. People must understand it.”

Toxicology expert Professor Daniel Dietrich acknowledged that even full transparency would not convince “the flat-earth society”, referring to groups of people who remain unconvinced by even the strongest evidence. But he insisted that being open will prevent more people joining their cause.

MEP Girling struck a cautious note on the issue of 100% transparency though, insisting that authorities should be careful to make sure information is completely accurate, before rushing to make details public.

She and her fellow panellists acknowledged that this is part of a wider ongoing debate about whether the public can actually be trusted to make decisions or whether it is a case of communicating information more accurately.

What’s in a word?

Professor Dietrich and head of the European Risk Forum Dirk Hüdig both made the point that language plays an important part in a lot of scientific advice, especially when it comes to determining what is a ‘risk’ and what is a ‘hazard’.

This fundamental distinction, which is tied heavily to the EU’s much-championed precautionary principle, lies at the heart of many controversial debates, including the glyphosate pesticide renewal and the authorisation of genetically modified crops.

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Hudig pointed out that the difference between risk and hazard does not even exist in certain countries as the very word for both concepts is often the same in some languages.

Dietrich also warned that discrepancies in EU legislation, as a result of bad drafting or inaccurate translation, has muddied the waters further and created a grey area about what is acceptable and what is safe.

Structural problems

The way in which scientific advice is compiled in the first place was also debated and the panellists revealed that there are a number of problems in the process.

Professor Dietrich explained that high-level expert panels are often comprised of people who do their work through a personal commitment and that they offer their expertise during their free time. He called for a change in the dynamic so that they are given more recognition.

He also suggested that a new arbitration body should be set up and given the power to settle disputes between authorities that differ on conclusions, referring to the ongoing disagreement over the status of glyphosate and whether it is carcinogenic.

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While MEP Julie Girling agreed that there could be room for such a mechanism for resolving low-level disputes like the formation of expert panels, she doubted that there would be much chance of an absolutely independent body being set up and granted that kind of decision-making power.

Summing up the event, Girling said that scientific advice is essential to policy-makers as they are often tasked with making binary decisions on complex issues. She added that the hazard vs risk consideration is a “frustrating one” but something all MEPs have to get used to.

Event participants were invited to get involved with how the EU uses scientific evidence by participating in a public consultation on risk assessment in the food chain, which is open until March 2018.