Independence is one of EFSA’s key values. In line with its Strategy, the Authority is committed to safeguarding the independence of its experts, staff, methods and data from any undue external influence and to ensuring that it has the necessary mechanisms in place to achieve this.
The central pillar of EFSA’s independence is its Management Board, itself an independent body whose members are appointed by the Council of the European Union in consultation with the European Parliament and who are required to act in the public interest. More information here.
In addition, the Authority applies a robust set of measures and working practices to safeguard the independence of its scientific work and avoid conflicts of interest. These are all brought together and explained in EFSA’s policy on independence, which was reviewed in June 2017. The policy is implemented by the rules laid down in the Decision on competing interest management.
Good risk assessment practices
EFSA has developed a comprehensive body of good risk assessment practices to guide the work of its Scientific Committee and scientific panels. EFSA’s Scientific Committee has also adopted a set of recommendations on transparency in risk assessment to ensure maximum transparency of its work. More information here.
All the final scientific opinions adopted by the Scientific Committee and scientific panels are the outcome of collective deliberations and decisions, with each member having an equal say. No single expert can unduly influence the decisions of the panel.
Before starting work on a scientific opinion, EFSA takes a number of measures to ensure that it is not duplicating work carried out by other similar bodies. In particular, it exchanges information on planned risk assessment activities with its Advisory Forum of Member State representatives via the EFSA Register of Questions and a database of risk assessment activities planned by Member States.
EFSA also takes great care to identify as early as possible any potential scientific divergences between its opinions and work carried out by Member States or other national/regional/international bodies. In the event of such divergences being identified, EFSA has a procedure in place for clarifying and/or resolving the contentious issues. This is outlined in article 30 of EFSA’s Founding Regulation and in a set of good practice guidelines issued by the Advisory Forum. Between 2006 and 2018, 13 cases of potential divergence were detected and addressed.
Selection of scientific experts
Members of the Scientific Committee, scientific panels and their working groups, as well as other external experts contributing to the work of EFSA, are selected according to their scientific competence and expertise using objective and transparent criteria. During the selection process, interests declared by applicants are scrutinised to ensure the prevention of conflicts of interest (see below).
In addition, independent external evaluators review the assessment of applications for scientific panel membership to ensure that the selection process is coherent. More information here.
Competing interest management
EFSA systematically screens the information provided by an expert in the Declaration of Interest (DoI) and assesses whether a declared interest constitutes a conflict. The ADoIs screening process is coordinated and validated by EFSA’s Legal and Assurance Services.
In June 2017, EFSA’s Management Board adopted a new policy on independence, which enhances the previous approach by including a number of additional safeguards. The revised policy now features:
- A new definition of what constitutes a conflict of interest, which brings EFSA into line with the most recent rules adopted by the European Commission for its expert committees.
- A comprehensive set of “cooling-off” rules: external experts will be automatically barred from joining EFSA’s scientific panels or working groups if in the preceding two years they have been employed by, acted as consultants to, or have offered scientific advice to organisations that work in areas covered by EFSA’s remit. The cooling-off periods also apply to experts who have received research funding (exceeding 25% of the total funding for the research) from such organisations.
- A requirement that experts declare the proportion of their annual earnings received from any organisation, body or company whose activities fall within EFSA’s areas of work. This information will be published and used as part of the DoI assessment.
- Publication of the list of EFSA’s “institutional fellows”, such as national and international authorities, universities or research institutes.
- Member State experts who take part in peer review meetings will be subject to the same scrutiny and transparency measures applicable to panel experts.
EFSA also developed rules to implement this new policy. EFSA started implementing the new implementing rules set out in its decision on competing interest management as of 1 July 2018. The new rules replace the criteria used by EFSA until 30 June 2018 to screen DoIs, which were set out in the 2014 rules on declarations of interest.
Besides unconditional restrictions applying to persons employed by “food industry” or holding financial investments in food business operators, the evaluation of the DoI takes into account the interests declared by the expert in relation to the mandate of the group in question. The screening criteria for each activity are transparently laid down in the Annex to EFSA’s decision on competing interest management.
Based on the outcome of the screening of each DoI, EFSA decides whether or not the person is allowed to participate in the relevant scientific group and, if they are, in what role (for example as chair/vice-chair or member of a scientific panel or working group).
In addition to this regular screening of the declared interests, twice a year EFSA regularly reviews a representative sample of the scrutinized DoIs to monitor for completeness and coherence with EFSA’s rules.
In an expert is found to have omitted relevant information that would have led to the identification of a CoI, EFSA may trigger a “breach of the rules” procedure, which may lead to the adoption of one or more measures vis-à-vis the concerned expert. If a measure is applied, EFSA performs a review of the scientific output to which the expert contributed with a view to clarify whether, and the extent to which, that expert influenced the output.
Findings of these processes are reported to the Management Board and as of 2019, EFSA makes publicly available an Annual Report on independence related activities:
Annual Report on the implementation of EFSA’s policy on independence for 2018. Reporting period: 1 January – 31 December 2018
Declarations of interest
All experts of the Scientific Committee, scientific panels and working groups are required to sign a declaration of commitment, including a commitment to act independently, and to provide an annual declaration of interests (ADoI) for each EFSA group of which they are a member. All ADoIs of the experts are published on the EFSA website.
Experts are required to submit an ADoI before joining the relevant scientific group, to update it at least once a year, as soon as a new interest emerges or a previously declared one is modified.
An ADoI contains details of current activities and those completed in the last five years in the following categories:
- Financial investments.
- Managerial role.
- Occasional consultancy.
- Membership of a scientific advisory entity.
- Research funding.
- Intellectual property rights.
- Other membership or affiliation.
- Other relevant interests.
Experts are also required to declare additional interests orally at the beginning of each meeting they attend. Should an interest be declared orally, EFSA staff members screen it and if a CoI is identified prevent the expert from taking part in the discussion. Oral DoIs as well as the outcome of the screening or the measure taken to prevent the occurrence of an identified CoI are reported and documented in the minutes of each meeting.
EFSA staff act in the public interest and are subject to several obligations under EU staff regulations applicable to all civil servants employed by the EU institutions, bodies or agencies, including that of acting impartially, with integrity, of avoiding conflicts of interest and of reporting them as soon as they emerge. EFSA organizes regular awareness raising sessions for its staff to foster an internal culture intolerant to partiality.
EFSA requires candidates to its vacant positions as staff, as well as its agents and officials to fill out an ADoI, which is screened prior to recruitment and ensures that staff members are not assigned to projects where conflicts of interests have been identified. EFSA publishes proactively online the ADoIs of its senior management even in the absence of a legal requirement to do so.
Procurement and grant awarding procedure
EFSA’s public procurement procedures concerning EFSA’s scientific activities require any legal or natural person to submit a Declaration of Interest.
Moreover, EFSA requires tenderer or Grant applicants to submit a DoI for each member of the team that is supposed to contribute to the project.
In this context, EFSA screens DoIs submitted and assesses whether a declared interest constitutes a conflict according to objective and transparent criteria laid down in Annex 2 of the Decision on Competing Interest Management. Where CoIs are identified and the tenderer or participant to grant awarding procedure are unable to prevent the occurrence of the conflict or propose an suitable alternative expert, this leads to the exclusion of the concerned tenderer or participant.
- EFSA’s Policy on Independence (2017)
- Decision of the Executive Director on Competing Interest Management (2018)
- Decision of the Executive Director concerning the selection of members of the Scientific Committee, Scientific Panels and external experts
- Establishment and operations of the Scientific Committee, Scientific Panels and of their Working Groups
- Deloitte 2017 ex post evaluation on EFSA’s policy on independence and scientific decision making processes