Consultative Workshop on Independence and Scientific Decision Making, Brussels

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Honourable Members of the European Parliament, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to welcome you to this EFSA workshop on independence and scientific decision making and to thank you for taking time from your busy schedules to participate. As well as those of you here in the audience in Brussels, I would like to welcome our online audience who are watching this webcast live. Seen in the broader context, this event is part of a programme of consultation with stakeholders and other interested parties which EFSA organises to address important issues. And our topic today certainly falls into that category of “important issues”. Scientific excellence and independence are closely-related core values for us and are essential in building trust in European food safety, our raison d’être.

Many of you will have commented on our Draft Policy on Independence and Scientific Decision-Making Processes which we opened up for a 10-week online public consultation ending in mid-September. Since then, we have been busy analysing your comments in order to organise today’s event and I would like to thank you for the many comments we received from a wide range of sources. Your contribution to this crucial aspect of our work is greatly appreciated and rest assured that your comments will be fully considered, along with the outcomes of today’s workshop, in the final policy and its implementing rules.

We have invited a wide range of participants today, from Member States, the scientific community, European institutions, European Parliament, stakeholder groups, academia and EFSA’s Scientific Committee and Management Board, to ensure that we hear the full spectrum of views. We are very pleased to have a distinguished panel of speakers to provide their insights into what is often a complex area and I would like to thank all of them for sharing their expertise and experiences with us here today.

I would also like to express my gratitude to Kartika Liotard, our Liaison MEP, for delivering the keynote address this morning; to John Dalli, Commissioner for Health & Consumer Policy, who has very kindly agreed to provide the closing comments; and to Vivienne Parry for moderating our discussions today.

Existing measures
Consideration of how best to protect EFSA’s independence is not something new. To build trust in the European food safety system, EFSA’s Founding Regulation makes clear the obligations on all who contribute to its work to declare any interest that might be prejudicial to the objectivity of its science. EFSA has exercised its responsibility with a series of policies starting initially with the Rules of Procedures for the various EFSA units and bodies in 2002, then progressing through a Code of Conduct in 2004, and culminating in 2007 with the Policy on Declarations of Interest which laid down specific provisions for identifying and handling conflicts of interest. Alongside these policies, EFSA has put in place a multifaceted set of implementing rules concerning issues such as the selection of experts, rules of procedure for the Scientific Committee and Scientific Panels, and rules applicable to its staff.

All of these measures represent the building blocks of EFSA’s existing safeguards in which we have invested significant time and resource. As well as reviewing the policies themselves, our implementation has also been the subject of several external audits and independent reviews since 2008. They have confirmed that we are successfully implementing the policies but with some recommendations for improvements and we are taking these into consideration in the new policy. Despite these positive opinions, we recognise that EFSA’s independence is occasionally challenged and that the public perception of our independence – an important component of trust in itself – can be strengthened.

Public trust in science
We are mindful that, while the public relies on and trusts the expert judgment of scientists, many remain sceptical to scientific risk assessment due to the perceived association of scientists with the private sector. This was clearly evident in the outcomes of the 2010 European Commission Special Eurobarometer report on science and technology. While two-thirds of respondents agreed that science and technology can improve their lives, 58% thought that scientists cannot be trusted on controversial scientific and technological issues because of their associations with industry.

This dichotomy with respect to public trust in science also comes through in the Eurobarometer survey on the perceptions of European consumers of food-related risks which EFSA commissioned in 2010. Nearly three-quarters of respondents regarded scientists as trusted sources of information on food-related risks, however less than half agreed that this scientific advice is independent of commercial or political interests.  From both surveys, a clear need is identified to better explain the scientific decision-making process and to consult and engage the public and other stakeholders on scientific decision making processes. Our first session this morning will address some of the general issues surrounding trust in science from a broad societal context as well as the management of interests in public organisations.

Public consultation
In relation to the feedback received during the online public consultation, we were pleased to receive more than 80 individual comments on the various aspects of the policy, many very specific and others of a more general nature. Our second session this morning will include an overview of the comments received and our afternoon session will provide the opportunity to discuss these comments in more detail.
All of these comments raise a number of important questions on which we would like to reflect with you today. Let me mention some of those key questions:   

  • Can EFSA’s organisational governance be enhanced?
  • Is it reasonable to expect that scientific experts working with risk assessment bodies – who “volunteer” their time for the public good – will have no links at all to the private sector, bearing in mind that public-private partnerships are an established, and indeed encouraged, part of research funding?
  • Do we need a more comprehensive definition of a conflict of interest?
  • How should EFSA use industry-generated data in its risk assessments? 
  • How can we better explain the scientific decision-making process and engage with stakeholders in this regard?
  • EFSA has five core values to balance: scientific excellence, independence, openness, transparency and responsiveness. Are we focusing too much attention on one aspect (namely declarations of interest) to the detriment of the others and to the “bigger picture”?

These are obviously not the only questions we need to consider but they are, I believe, fundamental to our discussions today and to EFSA’s work going forward.

Closing comments
Today’s workshop provides a valuable opportunity to further develop – with your input – our framework for assuring scientific excellence and independence going forward. It is important to grasp this opportunity to build a new policy that will serve Europe well in future. We value your contributions to this dialogue and they will be reflected in the revised policy document that we will submit to EFSA’s Management Board at the end of the year.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.

Published: 13 October 2011