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French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety

Scientific expert appraisal, its developments and its position in the decision-making process when uncertainties arise

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News of 16/07/2013

Since the health and environmental crises of the 1980s and 90s, the role of scientific expert appraisal in the  public decision-making process has grown. Faced with complex subjects and the social challenges they engender, as well as the uncertainties surrounding available knowledge and its exploitation in the public arena, is it enough to make use of the authority of science to arbitrate difficult choices? Many leading members of the scientific community debated these questions during the conference held on 18 June and organised by ANSES and the Sustainable Development Chair at Sciences-Po, which was attended by over 200 participants.



Is the institutionalisation and professionalisation of scientific expert appraisal, via the creation of health and safety agencies in particular, sufficient to meet the sometimes contradictory expectations and requirements of the decision makers and various interest groups within society? 

Despite the progress achieved in health surveillance and the health and safety field, new crises and alerts which arise raise questions on the effectiveness and credibility of expert appraisal systems and their governance. These crises create a climate of mistrust which is potentially harmful to innovation, certain implementations of which are highly contested. In addition, the persistence of controversies over environmental and health issues is proof of the tensions between academic science and scientific expert appraisal, and of confrontations and juxtapositions between expert knowledge and lay knowledge. These phenomena lead to veritable confrontations as to the actual nature of exploitable knowledge, as well as to its mode of production, verification and validation in the development of decision-making procedures. Faced with recurrent suspicions of subordination to economic and/or political interests and to a growing demand for democratisation of the decision-making process, what functions and responsibilities should be assigned to scientific expert appraisal initiatives and to those involved in them?

To shed light on these questions, ANSES and the Sustainable Development Chair at Sciences-Po organised this event based on three round tables introduced by specialists in the area and to which scientists, experts, elected officials and researchers from various backgrounds contributed. To open the event, David Vogel, a professor of political science at the University of Berkeley gave an account the development of risk management and precautionary policies in the US and Europe since the 1960s. 

According to Francis Chateauraynaud, the development of expert appraisal initiatives and the implementation of their procedures, including openness, paradoxically contribute to ignoring society's questions on technological choices, even though they are at the centre of the controversies and mistrust expressed by certain categories of citizens towards decision makers and scientists. The first round table dealt with participatory democracy, in addition to a discussion on the transformation of expert appraisal models into more hybrid forms, leaving more space for a wide range of knowledge and understanding. At the end of the first round table, Georges Mercadal concluded that, while rigorous arguments are an indispensable attribute of high-quality expert appraisal, it must also be designed as an initial compromise and correctly correlated to the decision-making process.

Pierre Le Coz introduced the second round table by presenting the general objectives of the ethical standards procedure and its dual application to expert appraisal: with regard to ethics on the one hand, in order to reconcile values which may be in conflict (transparency/privacy, loyalty/collegiality, integrity/adversarial principles); and in the area of epistemology, on the other hand, by summarising a few basic rules for leading scientific debate in the proper way and comparing and contrasting opinions in expert groups. The discussions involved the following topics: exercising integrity and collegiality in scientific production; clarification of the notions of interests and responsibility for the various individuals directly or indirectly involved in the expert appraisal process.  

As an introduction to the third and final round table, William Dab brought up the following questions: the notion of the signal in the public health context, the ranking of priorities in situations of uncertainty and the creation of health and safety policy. In his review of the history of the draft law on independence in expert appraisal and the protection of whistle blowers, senator Ronan Dantec emphasised the need to construct and more democratically take responsibility for collective risks. Deputy Gérard Bapt indicated that, despite positive developments (transparency, multi-disciplinarity, etc.) in the conducting of expert appraisal, there is still a wide gap between the rhythm at which technologies are developed and the ability of expert appraisal to anticipate and evaluate the possible risks posed by them.  

In their conclusions, Laurence Tubiana and Marc Mortureux emphasised the positive changes observed with regard to more open and transparent expert appraisal methods involving multiple fields of knowledge. They also mentioned the developments in scientific competency, which is more widely distributed throughout society, as well as scientific competency in the research sphere in particular, where public/private partnerships are now the rule. In conclusion, while scientific production and expert appraisal can still be improved in order to better inform public decision making, it will always be necessary to conduct arbitrations and to take responsibility for political choices. 

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