Risk assessment is under threat when, as foot and mouth shows, it is essential, says Jim Bridges.
The foot-and-mouth epidemic has highlighted yet again the need for rapid, independent and high-quality risk assessment advice. We find ourselves in crisis situations, either real or perceived, with increasing frequency, leading to consumer anxiety and government pressure over safety issues.
The European Union requires an assessment of any risk to be expert, independent and transparent. The increasing emphasis on independence means membership of scientific expert committees is restricted largely to senior scientists in universities and non-commercial research institutes who are willing to dedicate their spare time, with often no real financial benefit. Experts with direct or even indirect industrial links are normally ruled out.
Added to these demands is a new problem: experts are becoming an endangered species. Their numbers are declining rapidly, and the reasons have been apparent for some time.
First, opportunities in academia to develop the requisite skills have diminished over the past decade. Career progression depends increasingly on specialisation. Opportunities and incentives to develop a broad experience are the exception rather than the rule, but assessment of the risks to human and environmental health requires expertise in a particular area as well as a general understanding of the overall field. Many departments and research institutes have been reduced in size or closed and resources redirected to more fashionable disciplines. And, although industry funding is available for research on specific products and processes, it is widely perceived to compromise the objectivity of the recipients for a long time.
Second, universities and non-governmental research institutions are increasingly reluctant to allow staff to spend more than a small amount of time working for national government or international bodies without some form of reimbursement. Such work is unlikely to help career advancement and does not rate highly in the research assessment exercise.
Third, experts are not adept in communicating their findings to non-expert groups and, perhaps, as a consequence, are exposed to criticism from the media and lobby groups. Many find this hard to cope with. The situation is particularly difficult for scientists in north European countries whose work involving experiments on animals is highly unpopular.
All EU member states are facing the same shortage of experts, as a recent survey of each of the key scientific disciplines underpinning human and environmental health risk assessment shows. The position for many prospective member states is even bleaker.
In Germany, for example, ten of the 20 university departments of toxicology have closed down or been drastically reduced in size in the past decade, leading to a drastic reduction of toxicological competence. The German government is belatedly reviewing how it can reverse this trend.
When the EU expands, its capacity to cope with risk assessment will be put under even greater strain. Its 2000 Report on Harmonisation of Risk Assessment proposes steps that should be taken to improve member states' expertise. This will take time.
It is important that universities and governments start a constructive dialogue on how to address the shortage. A major investment in advancing the science base of risk assessment is also required, including the integration of the principles of risk assessment in both undergraduate and postgraduate training of scientists. If no action is taken, there may not be the independent, transparent and expert advice we need to avoid or contain future crises.
Jim Bridges is professor of toxicology and environmental health at the University of Surrey, and chairman of the EU scientific committee on toxicology, ecotoxicology and the environment, and of the Task Force on the Harmonisation of Risk Assessment.