The EU needs a better way to cope with risk

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

Policymakers recognise the links between innovation, growth and employment. However, novelty often bears uncertainty in Europe, where an increasingly risk-averse mind-set could threaten innovation, writes Dirk Hudig.

Dirk Hudig is secretary-general of the European Risk Forum, a Brussels-based think tank.

The management of risks related to public health, safety and the environment has become a core function of EU policymaking. It plays an important role in spurring innovation and economic growth, while at the same time preserving high standards of living.

The regulation of risk is now considered to be a common and important feature of modern policy making. Risks are to be weighed against their possible benefits, so as not to stifle innovation and scientific progress. Such an approach will eventually benefit society as a whole.

Significant improvements have already been made in EU risk governance, through the establishment of the Impact Assessment Board in the Secretariat General of the Commission, as well as a new unit dedicated to this policy issue in the European Parliament.

The appointment in late 2011 of Anne Glover as chief scientific adviser to the European Commission president lays the foundation for ensuring that reliable, well-founded scientific evidence will form the basis of the EU’s legislative and regulatory decision-making process.

A more scientific approach should lead to better, evidence- based legislation and regulation.

Further progress still needs to be made. Guidelines are currently lacking in key areas such as the screening of scientific advice and risk communication. Gaps, as well as limited resources and weaknesses still exist in the institutional framework, particularly at the Council’s level.  

A new report by the European Risk Forum seeks to reinforce the work done by the EU institutions in the realm of the Smart Regulation agenda, and proposes to put greater emphasis on the areas that could be widely beneficial to society.  

The ERF Action Plan promotes the extensive use of evidence (especially of a scientific nature); the rigorous definition of policy objectives; a clear and comprehensive description and assessment of problems and their underlying causes; a realistic understanding of the costs and benefits of policy options; and the extensive consultation of stakeholders.

For example, the precautionary principle – the idea of taking preventative action in advance of possible harm – is in many cases common sense when facing uncertainty. But in the EU, once the precaution principle has been translated into regulation, there is no way back, as even after the scientific uncertainty has been resolved, the restrictions remain in place.

Such an outcome is harmful for both scientific and economic progress.

One should be careful when addressing risk through substitution for example that the actions taken don’t potentially lead to even bigger risks.

The questions surrounding the field of biotechnology offer a case in point. DNA was first discovered in 1953, and is considered to be one of the most important discoveries of the past century. 

In 2003, exactly half a century later, the human genome project unveiled the 3 billion elements comprising the human genome. Last September, a discovery was made which established that the so-called ‘junk genes’ making up approximately 80% of the human genome, are in fact operating systems, which have the capacity of turning genes on or off. 

This new insight holds the promise of opening up a whole new field of research. The EU regulatory environment in the field of genetics has essentially come to a standstill since the 1990s, when the first directives controlling the use of genetically modified organisms were adopted.

EU regulators seem to have concluded that the risks involved outweigh the benefits. Genetically modified plants have saved millions of lives, and it is therefore safe to conclude in this case that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Yet the EU has a virtual ban on GMO plants in spite of them having been proved safe after decades of use and millions of years of exposure.

Europe is and remains a leading centre of scientific excellence. We have more scientists working today, equipped with high performing computing skills and tools than ever before in the history of the world.

It is therefore essential that the right regulatory environment is established, so as to enable innovation, maintain employment and a certain quality of life in Europe. The ERF Action Plan intends to contribute to this purpose."

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