Advisory format facing hurdles

June 15, 2001

Legislation, bias and a disregard for the unknown are holding back the government's new science advisory framework, writes Caroline Davis.

Robin Grove-White, head of Lancaster University's Centre for the Study of Environmental Change and a member of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, said these three obstacles had to be overcome if the commission was to achieve its aims.

Two advisory commissions and the Food Standards Agency are charged with providing the government with independent advice on the latest scientific developments and products that could affect society and consumers.

Professor Grove-White said that the AEBC's work was constrained by rigid European Union legislation that allowed products on the market unless they presented an identifiable risk. This left the AEBC little scope to offer measured independent advice. In turn, this could lead to physical mishaps that further erode public trust and negate the purpose of the commission.

Professor Grove-White said scientists were prone to a prejudiced view of the public as a single consensus. He said public concerns should not be dismissed as lacking intellectual rigour.

Finally, he said the current risk assessment framework was unable to cope with "unknown unknowns". He suggested that it was unanticipated consequences of science and technology that underlay public concern. The commission had to find a way to tackle these concerns, he said.

Professor Grove-White spoke at the first meeting of the three non-governmental advisory bodies set up last year to boost public confidence in scientific advice.

The AEBC, the Human Genetics Commission and the FSA were intended to be independent and consumer-oriented. Their committees include scientists, representatives of consumers and pressure groups, lawyers, ethicists and others. The FSA is able to create policy. The AEBC and the HGC advise policy-makers.

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