Restoring trust and effectiveness in EU scientific advice

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

Pesticide use, particularly the use of glyphosate, is one of the best examples of where scientific advice is essential to policymakers. [defotoberg / Shutterstock]

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

Today, more than ever, EU regulators must ensure that risk management decisions meet public demands for high standards of protection whilst simultaneously stimulating competitiveness and prosperity in Europe. Basing decisions on the best available science is the pre-condition for achieving these goals, argues Dirk Hüdig.

Dirk Hüdig is  Secretary General of the European Risk Forum (ERF), an expert-led, not-for-profit think tank.

Management of potential harms is a benefit to society and an overarching goal of the European Union. Today, public risk management is most readily associated with government actions to protect citizens and the environment from risks posed by technologies and lifestyle choices.

However, from crop protection products to endocrine disruptors, from food additives to biotech solutions, the framework underpinning the assessment and management of risks at the EU level has suffered a widespread loss of credibility and legitimacy.

One the one hand, the provision of scientific expertise to the EU decision-makers is atomised, resulting from the piecemeal evolution of the risk governance system over the preceding decades. While pockets of excellence do exist, and many of the scientific assessments carried out by the EU bodies are of high quality, evidential standards are not uniform, there is no horizontal policy governing the collection, validation and use of scientific evidence, and central oversight is not systematic.

On the other hand, some groups argue that analytical and decision-making processes have been captured by special interests, leading to discretionary, unpredictable, and ineffective outcomes.

Depending on the result of the process, the institutions, procedures and the evidential basis used for risk management decisions are praised or discredited by allegedly contrasting forces in society. Manufactured social concern, low quality evidence or activist-led investigations fuel the politicisation of science and seek its reduction to a set of mere opinions infused with values, until it serves predefined policy objectives and beliefs.

But such post-modernism is not inescapable. The EU institutions can and must counter any emerging tendency to adopt, in response to these novel ideologies, risk management choices that cause unnecessary or disproportionate costs or increase risks and generate no manifest, credible societal benefits.

Towards scientific excellence and impartiality

In its recent study on Scientific Evidence and the Management of Risk, the European Risk Forum (ERF) explains why strengthening the role and quality of the scientific evidence sourced and used in the EU decision-making can contribute significantly to restoring trust in the EU’s institutions by making risk management processes more effective, predictable, and proportionate.

When used as the key knowledge input for decision-making, the best available science provides unique ways of identifying potential risks and protecting citizens, while at the same time allocating resources wisely and stimulating innovation.

If, by contrast, the scientific evidence used to justify government action fails to demonstrate robust, causal links between exposure and damage or fails to meet widely accepted evidential standards, then it is difficult for regulators to demonstrate the efficacy of policy measures, to avoid regulatory failure, or to maintain public confidence.

To make change happen, future reforms need to tackle several dimensions, including institutional structures, policies and guidance on risk, as well as political commitment. The lunch debate organised in the European Parliament on 23 January has highlighted several ideas to make the EU a world-leader again in the use of science to support regulation, to strengthen incentives to innovate, and to protect citizens and the environment.

EU-wide, uniform principles and standards – It is imperative to adopt uniform standards for the collection, validation and use of scientific evidence, which emphasise the importance of excellence and define the characteristics of the best available science. The benefits of rigorously deploying Systematic Reviews should be highlighted, so as to ensure that scientific findings rest on the powerful ‘scientific method’. At the same time, there should be a consistent policy on the way in which scientific experts are selected, managing through transparent arrangements the many conflicts of interest facing experts, including financial, idealistic, and ideological conflicts, and their resultant biases. Without exception, future EU principles and standards must recognise that how science is produced and the extent to which it meets the standards of the scientific method is more important than who produces it.

Operational guidance – New binding Rules of Procedure for all committees used by the Commission to undertake assessments of risk should be drawn up and applied. Amongst other requirements, these new rules should recognise the unacceptability of bias in scientific advice. They should emphasise the importance of the quantification of risk assessment, of meeting international standards, and of basing assessments on the best available science. They should require committees to publicly explain the criteria, assumptions and methods used for evaluating data and scientific information.

Scientific oversight – The institutional architecture that co-ordinates, oversees, and implements scientific assessments should be up-graded too. A new, well-resourced scientific oversight function should be established close to the centre of the European Commission with responsibility for the quality, utility and integrity of the scientific evidence used to make risk management decisions. The current framework provided by the Scientific Advisory Mechanism and by the Regulatory Scrutiny Board may serve as the foundations for this institutional reform.

Political commitments – Finally, as the recent European Parliament discussion has reaffirmed, political commitment at the highest level is a fundamental enabling condition for reforms to happen. Political statements should be issued, stressing the importance of basing all legal, regulatory and administrative risk management decisions on the best available science, recognising explicitly that this should meet internationally accepted standards of excellence and impartiality. Possible instruments to convey such commitments may be dedicated Conclusions of the Council of the EU, new provisions in the Inter-Institutional Agreement on Better Law-making, and political guidelines from the STOA Panel.

Protecting the quality and integrity of scientific evidence, and thus providing ‘better science’ to EU decision-makers, is an opportunity to restore trust in the public management of risk, and to make it more effective, predictable, and proportionate.

In turn, this is likely to increase incentives to invest on innovation in Europe again, contributing to higher living standards and greater sustainability. The ERF is committed to explore solutions with the EU institutions and all interested parties to make this happen.