Chemical Watch (20 December 2012) quoted me in response to the adoption by EFSA’s management board of Ernst & Young’s recommendations from their “evaluation of the agency’s ability to provide independent, high quality scientific advice to EU policy-makers.”
The quote could use some clarification.
Paul Whaley, scientific advisor to the Cancer Prevention Society agrees that the moves Efsa is making are a good start, but feels that the authority needs to “review the objectivity of its decisions, and look beyond conflicts of interest and declarations of interest, and to look at the data it receives from industry objectively.”
Mr Whaley says, “if Efsa wants to strengthen perception of their decisions, they need to strengthen their decisions. With the advent of the internet and public awareness of the potential health risks posed by chemicals rising, risk assessment is no longer a closed-door process happening beyond the public; it is a public process and Efsa must treat it as such.”
What the journalist and I were discussing was the need for EFSA to go beyond conflicts and declarations of interest in their review of their practices surrounding scientific review of evidence and its interpretation in risk assessments and policy recommendations.
This is not just a point about transparency, which seems to be the focus of Ernst & Young’s recommendations, but the fundamental processes about which EFSA needs to be transparent: it’s not just a matter of addressing the perception of the objectivity of their processes, but the objectivity of these processes themselves.
This ties in to how drastically communication has changed in the last 2 decades. In the past risk assessment was a closed process, because the activities of small committees advising government agencies using science of low media interest and largely inaccessible to the general public, naturally enough flew under the public radar.
These days the speed at which new studies are disseminated through eager internet media outlets, discussion forums, social media networks and so forth, has simultaneously brought the public into the discussion, while allowing any disagreements to assume the appearance of controversy and uncertainty.
So while Ernst & Young diagnose EFSA as having a perception problem, they have perhaps not seen far enough ahead when it comes to resolving it. We would argue that EFSA’s credibility as an agency is not easily going to be preserved without treating the public as a new, major stakeholder in the risk assessment process. The public is not a client of risk assessment, but is in some sense engaged in it.
Handling the public perception of risk assessment, when so much of it is so much more open and uncontrolled than it used to be, presents a major challenge, and a challenge which may require radical overhaul of how risk assessment is done, to make sure a massive but non-specialist stakeholder maintains trust in the process.
Our thinking on this is still very nebulous, but we suspect public scrutiny entails major process changes for how risk assessment is conducted; if EFSA is concerned about its sustainability, it has to think about the changes of the last 10 years, what may happen in the next 10, and work through the fundamental implications of this. Even if the changes needed turn out not to be fundamental, we won’t know that until they have been thought through.