Risk perception: understanding the gap between science and public opinion

December 8, 2003

Brussels, 05 Dec 2003

'When I started this job, everybody asked me to ensure that decisions were made on the basis of scientific evidence. If we drift away from that, we're at sea, and I don't know where we'll end up,' said EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne, on the opening day of a conference addressing risk perception.

Along with German Minister for Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture Renate Künast, and Spanish Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Miguel Arias Cañete, Mr Byrne highlighted the difficulties involved in policy making when science says one thing, but public opinion says another.

'Our collective response when faced with questions of risk often bears little relation to established facts,' said the Commissioner. 'Our relationship with risk often appears to be inconsistent if not completely irrational,' he said, citing the case of genetically modified (GM) food as an example. 'All the evidence is going in one direction - that GM food is safe,' he said. But there is still a reluctance among consumers to accept the results of scientific research, and consumer concerns should not be ignored, he added.

One of the main problems with regard to risk, as highlighted by Mr Arias Cañete, is that while the Commission and national governments are dealing with risk - through risk evaluation and management - this is not being communicated to the public at large. 'If society understands that someone is in control, and that there is a plan, this goes a long way towards alleviating concern,' said Mr Byrne, echoing this point.

When risk is communicated, it is frequently done through the media, which can lead to a magnification of concerns. The Spanish minister therefore called for a code of conduct between the media and public authorities for the communication of risk.

A key part to risk communication is honesty, emphasised Ms Künast. 'Policy must ultimately be based on scientific assessment. But we don't always have the answers, and we have to admit that, as in the case of green genetic engineering,' she said. And as we cannot know what new knowledge we will have acquired in 20 years time, it is essential that sound rules are put in place now, as in the case of the coexistence of GM crops and the labelling of GM foods, she added. 'This ensures freedom of choice.'

In addition to trust, Mr Arias Cañete underlined the importance of understanding risk perception. The extent to which a phenomenon is perceived as a risk by the general public is likely to be influenced by the novelty of the risk, the extent to which exposure to the risk can be controlled by an individual, and whether the risk has been created or occurs naturally. 'These varying views have to be reconciled,' said Mr Arias Cañete, so as to ensure that 'risk' does not automatically translate into 'danger'. He called for policy makers to 'get into the shoes' of Europe's citizens, and to seek a better understanding of what influences risk perception.

All three speakers recognised that neither consumer trust nor a comprehensive understanding of risk perception can be built up overnight, but accepted that progress will be gradual and steady, and can be aided by the sharing of experiences.

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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