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Column: Growing distrust towards European regulators shows we need evidence-based policy making

The BSE crisis in the UK, the tainted blood scandal in France and the recent horse meat fiasco are just some of the scandals that have hit Europe. But the response to public outcry, unfortunately, usually throws science out the window, writes Prof Rangar Lofsted.

Image: butterflydream via shutterstock

THERE IS A growing level of public distrust toward certain regulators in Europe. There are a number of explanations for this, of which the main one has to do with the increased number of regulatory scandals which has plagued Europe for the past twenty years.

These include classical examples such as the ‘mad cow’ crisis in the UK and the tainted blood scandal in France, to the more recent crisis in France surrounding the amphetamine derivative Mediator, and the horse meat fiasco in Ireland and elsewhere.

With every scandal comes a media outcry, outraged single interest-groups, pressured regulators and concerned citizens, and a belief among politicians that something now urgently needs to be done.

The regulatory process becomes politicised

In these situations, in more cases than not, science is out the window as the regulatory process becomes increasingly politicised and adversarial.  In such an environment, certain single interest groups and politicians accuse many of the scientists who have been assisting the science-based regulators to have conflicts of interest and, therefore, cannot be trusted.

In addition, these same individuals argue firstly, that, going forward, there is as a need of ascertaining that a greater number of regulations are based on the precautionary principle and so-called hazard classifications so as to ensure that such scandals can never happen again.

Secondly, they argue that, more or less, anecdotal evidence is sufficient for the passage of regulations.  There are multiple examples of this, ranging from the European ban of the usage of BPA plasticisers in baby bottles, to the Swedish, almost utopian, vision of pushing for a so-called ‘non-toxic environment’ by the year 2020.

Regulation driven by anecdotes and media outcries is not evidence-based regulation. Look what happened with the so-called ‘MMR scare’ of the late 1990s, in which a rogue scientist and a concerted media campaign in a number of countries including Ireland and the UK, led parents to stop having their children being vaccinated.  The result of this vaccination scare is now clear for everyone to see, witnessed by the massive outbreak of measles over the past few months in many parts of the UK.  This was a disease that had been brought  under control by vaccination, yet by just one poor study generating media headlines, it led to public distrust of  the vaccine itself.

Evidence-based and risk-informed policy making

Distrust in science-based regulators leads not only to unnecessary public worry but, as in the case of MMR, to 1,200 children in Wales alone becoming seriously ill, all of which could have been completely avoidable.  Similarly, by politicising the regulatory agenda, it forces science-based regulators to spend precious time and resources to minimize uncertain risks such as BPA, rather than focusing on real risks such as the increase in Campylobacter food poisoning in Europe.

What we need to do now is to promote evidence-based and risk-informed policy making.  It is great to see that the European Commission has finally appointed a Chie Science Advisor in Professor Anne Glover, and it is also encouraging that Julie Girling MEP has set up an informal working group on risk in the European Parliament.

This, however, is not enough.  The European Commission must revisit its communication on the precautionary principle, to ensure that the future usage of the principle is much more science-based rather than political.  There is also a need to ensure that the media becomes more responsible, ethical and scientifically-based communicators.  The scientific community, for its part, must assist the media in both ensuring that they get their scientific stories right as well as to call journalists to account when a story is scientifically inaccurate.

The European Risk Summit, which will examine the role of science in policy-making, takes place in Trinity College Dublin on June 11-12. Website: www.risksummit.eu

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About the author:

Prof. Ragnar Lofsted

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