Policy makers and scientists discuss public perceptions of risk

At a conference on 4-5 December, policy makers, scientists and risk communicators debated ways in which to bridge the gap between science and public risk perceptions.

Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne hosted a conference on risk perception in Brussels on 4-5 December 2003, highlighting the challenges faced by policy makers, especially with regard to the conflicting messages they receive from scientists on one hand and public attitudes on the other.

The speakers, which included experts in science and risk communication, and the Spanish and German Agriculture Ministers, Miguel Arias Cañete and Renate Künast analysed ways in which public perceptions are created and policy makers respond to them.

The debate surrounding GM food and crops was cited as an example where the attitudes of scientists and the public clashed. "All the evidence is going in one direction - that GM food is safe," said Commissioner Byrne. "But there is still a reluctance among consumers to accept the results of scientific research, and consumer concerns should not be ignored."

German minister Renate Künast pointed out that an open and transparent discussion must be the basis of any risk communication. Moreover, it was crucial to provide for a clear separation of risk evaluation, which is done by scientists, and the political side of risk management. Risk communication must rest upon scientific facts, said Mrs Künast

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