Conducting expert assessments
ANSES's expert assessment process is based on several essential points: compliance with ethical standards to prevent conflicts of interest and to ensure independence, a formal framework for collective and adversarial expert assessment of health risks allowing for the expression of minority opinions, and openness to society which respects the roles of all the stakeholders involved.
ANSES provides expert assessment in response to requests from the public authorities and stakeholders entitled to submit requests, as well as in the context of internal requests since, when deemed necessary, the Agency may decide independently to investigate any issues within the scope of its remit. These scientific expert assessments lead to recommendations designed to assist the competent authorities when making risk management decisions. They are published as opinions on the ANSES website, sometimes along with a report. Expert assessments of health risks are conducted collectively in conjunction with Expert Committees.
In addition to documents covering legal and regulatory obligations, notably an expert health assessment charter (PDF - in French), ANSES generates the following reference documents that engage the responsibility of the ANSES scientists and members of the expert groups:
- Code of ethical standards (PDF),
- Fundamental principles and key points of collective expert assessment (PDF),
- Guidelines on methodology for expert assessment (PDF - in French),
Collective multidisciplinary expertise
For ANSES, collective expert assessment can be defined as an expert assessment procedure for which several experts are selected and brought together to address a given issue, to hear all the conflicting, concurring or consensus opinions and theories expressed by their peers, and to provide an interpretation, opinion or recommendation based on a demonstration and a decision once all the evidence has been considered.
Confronted with the complexity of certain issues and the scientific uncertainties encountered, the Agency has developed innovative methods of assessment to better characterise and evaluate the validity of the results obtained and to facilitate their adoption by the players involved. To this end it may, for example, call on the human and social sciences (principally sociology and economics).
Collective expert assessment is certainly to be preferred when stronger guarantees are needed with regard to:
- the completeness of the data or the existing state of knowledge on the issue in question
- an issue involving several different disciplines
- a comparison of different opinions, theories or schools of thought
- the expression of, and reasoning behind, any dissenting positions
- the independence of the opinion
This procedure, which is stipulated in the public agencies' founding texts, is intended to ensure the validity of the result.
Groups of experts
To carry out ANSES's health risk assessment mission, its Director General creates Expert Committees and defines their sphere of competence by decision, after review by the Scientific Board and after deliberation by the Board of Administrators.
The members are selected after a public call for applications, and are appointed for three years. The Agency provides the scientific and administrative secretariat. It currently has about 20 Expert Committees.
To support the Expert Committees, collective expert assessment can also be entrusted to ad hoc Working Groups created by decision of the Director General for specific subjects.
Collegiality is maintained even in emergency situations. For this, ANSES creates Emergency Collective Expert Appraisal Groups (GECUs), appointed by the Director General. In all cases, the groups are made up of experts appointed after examination of their application files, which include a curriculum vitae and a public declaration of interests, in order to evaluate the competence and risk of conflict of interests for the topics at hand.
Ensuring independent expertise
To satisfy the Agency's obligation to carry out independent assessments, the experts are appointed in a personal capacity, intuitu personae.
They must submit to ANSES a Public Declaration of Interests (PDI) mentioning any direct or indirect link with firms or establishments whose products or processes are covered by the Agency's area of competence, as well as any links with companies or advisory bodies operating in those fields.
This declaration is made public and the experts undertake, once appointed, to update their declarations whenever their situation may change.
Potential conflicts of interest are initially handled prior to the assessment and before appointing the experts, and then throughout the duration of the assessment, notably during each expert meeting and when each dossier is examined. If any ethical risk has been identified, the members concerned may not take part either in the discussions or the vote.
ANSES officials participating in the expertise process also complete a Public Declaration of Interests, which is published online in the same way.
ANSES also has an auditing procedure and a Committee for Ethical Standards and Prevention of Conflicts of Interest to examine certain particularly complex situations and to rule on issues that may be contested or in doubt. It can intervene in all circumstances and all stages of collective expert assessment, from the formal request to the ANSES opinion.
Encouraging openness to society in expert assessment
Alongside the four thematic steering committees that give stakeholders' representatives a say in setting the Agency's strategic priorities, other arrangements have been made and measures taken to facilitate a dialogue with society at large in the course of expert assessment work. They include:
- application of the Charter on “The Social Representativeness of Expertise”, adopted by AFSSET, INERIS and IRSN in October 2008. This now applies to ANSES and, since 9 September 2011, to IRSTEA and Ifsttar, which have also signed the Charter. Through six specific commitments, signatories to the Charter undertake to ensure transparency and participation while taking full account of the practical knowledge and concerns of the stakeholders affected by the subject being assessed. Such a broad-based approach leads to more robust assessments. In short, the decisions likely to result from the process are of higher quality and are more easily understood and accepted by all players.
- coordination of dialogue committees with the stakeholders on specific topics. These committees bring together representatives of associations and trade unions, the business world, and local and regional authorities and institutions to ensure that the Agency is informed of the directions taken regarding research and assessment on subjects that are highly controversial and a matter of considerable concern to society. Two committees were set up in 2011 and 2012: the "Radiofrequencies and Health" dialogue committee and the "Nanomaterials and Health" dialogue committee.
During the expert assessment process, stakeholders may be consulted or hearings with them may be held.