Expert scientific advice – a growing chasm between European voters and the decision-makers?

In the same week that Dr Ann Glover, former Chief Scientific Adviser to Barosso, made a splash in the media by spilling the beans on her time working in Brussels the European Ombudsman released a report calling for a root and branch reform of the EU’s approach to expert scientific committees, which calls for greater transparency and balance in the selection of experts. Glover’s supporters view her removal as a nail in the coffin of sound science. Detractors view her as an industry muppet. Martyr or villain, victim or culprit, either way Glover’s removal is indicative of a growing debate on the future role of expert scientific advice in the formulation of EU law. No where is the question concerning scientific evidence more stark than with studies showing butter is healthier than margarine contradicting long-standing scientific advice on dietary intake. Ordinary Europeans are beginning to question how reliable scientific studies relating to food, consumer products, agricultural policies and environmental matters actually are. EU Perspectives investigates.

Kathleen Garnett

The role of expert scientific advice in EU policy making may sound dull as dishwater and in many respects it is – but beneath the murk battle-lines are forming between the private sector wishing to promote sound science and civic interest groups suspicious that the science is skewered in industry’s favour.

Outside of Brussels few will have heard of the SCCS, the SCHER, the SCENIHR, the SCOEL or the SHBD. Some may have heard in passing of the ECDC, the EFSA, the EMA, the ECHA and the CSA. More may have heard of the JCR, CEN and CENELEC and CERN[*] – or perhaps not. Bored? Bear with me – this is important.

All of the acronyms above refer to either committees, agencies, standardisation bodies or institutions centred on science and technology. The nitty-gritty details that determine future EU food, consumer, agricultural and environmental legislation are decided not in the European Parliament, Council or Commission but else where – in a seemingly endless maze of technical committees, European Agencies and research centres. They are run and staffed principally by scientists and experts. The minutes of the meetings are technical. The procedures arcane. The discussions instransparent. The conclusions often decisive in the creation of binding legislation. They are beloved of industry who can bury their specific interests under piles of scientific journals that no layman can begin to understand.

Much of what these scientific committees discuss and conclude is mundane and uncontroversial, relating in large part to air-traffic control procedures, improved energy efficiencies and/or research into cancer treatments. Then there are the branch of sciences that are proving more problematic and for which there appears to be little or no scientific consensus. This relates principally (though not exclusively) to the science of food, the science of agriculture, the science of climate change and the various branches of environmental sciences.

Beyond the confines of rarefied committee meetings and Agency conferences millions of Europeans are beginning to reject the conclusions of the scientific experts. This is a relatively new phenomena and has left scientists baffled and industry groups cornered. For years populations bowed to the greater knowledge of scientists. Now, the tide is turning. The scientific conclusions are increasingly being questioned by a sceptical population. Why?

There are two problems. Firstly, the scientific committees are one-dimensional beasts with a very narrow remit. They are tasked to determine how safe certain products are, based on assessing the risk of the product to human health. Secondly, the quality of the scientific studies they base their findings on are deemed by ordinary Europeans insufficient to form conclusive opinions.

By way of example, in the past two weeks the EFSA approved the use of:

  • the active substance cyhalofop (variant evaluated cyhalofop-butyl);
  • the active substance pyraflufen-ethyl; and
  • the existing MRL for thiram in avocados.

The average European citizen may question the true extent to which independent research has been conducted into the existing MRL for thiram in avocados on the wider population?  At a guess – not many. Scientific research into the safety of these substances is time-intensive, costly and requires unpaid scientists to peer review the findings often with shoddy results. Industry, on the other hand, does have the money to fund a low-paid PhD student to conduct their research into these substances.

The second challenge is that at no point during the course of their assessment is the EFSA required to consider the actual need to the European consumer for these substances. Take bisphenol A by way of example. In January the EFSA concluded that the use of bisphenol A in food packaging posed “no risk to human health”.

But perhaps the question of whether it poses a risk to human health should not be the first port of call. Rather than trying to assess whether bisphenol A poses a threat to human heath the committees should begin by asking – how badly does the European consumer actually need bisphenol A as part of the food packaging they buy? Are there non-chemical alternatives? What came before the use of bisphenol A? Who benefits the most from bisphenol A – the consumer or industry? Is it worth taking any risk if the need is so low and alternatives are available. If at the end of this analysis the need is deemed high they can then go on to assess the risk to human health of bisphenol A.

Industry would heartily dislike this approach. It is one thing trying to sound like the voice of reason and bamboozle non-scientists with endless scientific studies on risk assessment. Quite another thing trying to justify the actual need for the products they manufacture.

An interesting exercise would be to see the CEO of Monsanto pitching his/her product in front of the Dragon’s Den. Would any of the Dragon’s be convinced there is a gap in the European market for GMO maize, wheat, apples and soya beans when Europe already faces a glut of food products and an embargo from Russia? He/she would be laughed out of the room. The irrefutable fact is that Europe has no need for GMO products nor is there a gap in the market for GMOs.

Yet neither Commission technocrats, nor Chief Scientific Advisers, nor MEPs, nor scientific experts took that wholly relevant point into consideration when dithering over whether to approve GMOs in the EU. They were too side-lined by squabbles relating to safety to notice the glaring elephant in the room – we don’t need them so why take any risk?

At a time when the EU’s very legitimacy is increasingly under scrutiny EU decision makers would be wise not to ignore the concerns of ordinary citizens. Ann Glover sealed her fate when she announced at a press conference that her advice to the Commission President would remain confidential. Brussels is a hornets nest of vested interests; each suspicious of the other’s intentions. Her role as impartial honest-broker was no longer viable the moment she uttered those words.

In any case looking at the plethora of scientific committees, agencies and research centres that already exist, yet another scientific expert adviser adding their views was quite clearly surplus to requirement. Juncker may well have sniffed the mood of the European population. Perhaps he, unlike his predecessor, understands that when it comes to sensitive decisions touching upon food, agriculture, consumer products and the environment there is more to decision-making than risk assessment alone.

[*] Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER), Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SENIHR), Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits (SCOEL), Scientific Committee on human bio-monitoring data (SHBD), European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, (ECDC) European Food and Safety Agency (EFSA), European Medicine Agency (MA), European Chemicals Agency (ECA), Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), Joint Research Centre (JTC), European standardisation bodies (CEN & CENELEC), European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN).

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