Monday, 4 November 2013

David Zaruk

Safety of Plastics: Let's talk about it
David Zakur
David is a Risk Governance Analyst at Risk Perception Management and an Assistant Professor Adjunct in Communications at Vesalius College, VUB, and Facult├ęs universitaires St-Louis in Brussels. He sits on the European Commission DG Research Ethics Panel. He will participate on 5 November together with Professor Averil Macdonald at the Gala dinner.

Science, Politics and Industry

1. What should be the role of science in policy making?
Of course, policy-making should be evidence based – I have been arguing that from the 1990s when I was part of the team to set up GreenFacts. But today we see debates bifurcate between our scientists and their scientists – from climate to EDCs, science has been politicised rather than politics being “scientised”.

What do you expect from policy makers?
Courage, but sadly, most policy makers look for easy decisions that they will never be judged against – why precaution is such an attractive tool – you will never be judged to be wrong with PP. Just quite frequently not right.

Can you define robust science vs. non-conclusive science?
Science must always check against itself (Popper: science must always try to falsify its paradigms). A scientist who is not sceptical is not a true scientist – this scepticism must be robust.

Is industry funded research to be trusted?

I once stated at an event (and saw it fly back at me years later): If you want to discredit something, fund it! We have this puritan dream of some noble scientific endeavour funded by a grateful society. Since the fall of Communism, I can’t seem to find this world. Research costs are going up, government funding is going down. We have lost pure scientific research and moved towards research that has an impact (that can be justified in funding applications) so even non-industry funded research has become corporatized (see the SME incubator parks around university campuses). See 5 for consequences.

How to avoid conflicts of interests hampering the credibility of independent agencies?
COIs have handcuffed EFSA (see recent neonic PP decision) – when people like Boobis could no longer serve on EFSA because of changes to the grey book, then we are in a real mess. Show me an expert on food additives who has never worked for some company and I’ll show you an eager undergraduate. This is a ridiculous, yet highly successful campaign of certain anarchists in CEO and Greenpeace who just want to see EU institutions neutered and made ineffective.

The divergence approaches to risk regulation between the EU and US

6. Does culture affect how we approach legislation? Can you give examples?

I don’t think culture is the right term (there are many cultures on both sides of the Atlantic) – history might be a better term. American pioneering spirit grew out of a history of conquering nature (which they define differently than Europeans generally do) – at a time when Europeans were building walls around their cities, Americans were pushing out towards new frontiers. In agricultural technologies for example, Americans are not afraid of developing innovations since they don’t see farms as part of nature, and hence acting on farming practices is merely considered as augmenting the means of production, and not some sort of profane act of playing God on nature.

How to deal with unintended consequences of precautionism?

7. When should the precautionary principle be applied?

I have tried to articulate in my blogs the need to for a structural approach – prior to considering precaution (which is an abandonment of a process, substance or technology) there must first be a risk management process (precaution is not RM, but rather uncertainty management – a completely different thing). I favour ALARA as the prerequisite RM tool, but I am looking at the World Bank’s recent development with interest as a more sophisticated tool. In any case, precaution is a last resort, and should not be a first impulse (unless regulators are excessively cowardly).

8. How can the precautionary principle enhance innovation?

I don’t think it does – it interrupts innovation. I think you should be considering the relationship between regulation and innovation. It worked well when the EU imposed regulations on the automotive industry, forcing them to innovate on the power train technologies during the 1970s – Catherine Day wanted the same spirit to rise out of REACH, but I think REACH is more like the regulatory fail that was 91/414.

Is innovation possible in risk averse society?  

9. Is Europe risk averse?
I think you have risk takers and risk averse people everywhere you go. The EU governance system (see the 2000 White Paper on Governance) gives more of a participatory role to those wishing to impress their aversion on a greater audience. Add the institutionalisation of precaution and you can see the imbalance.

Do we need to take risk to be innovative?
I think we overestimate the innovation process. Many consider Apple to be the most innovative company, but they never invented anything or risked the company on any big new thing – they iterated existing technologies (MP3, smartphones, computers…). Innovation is about taking the existing research and technology and applying it to meet people’s needs or solve their problems. A technology that the public does not want or need will not lead to any significant innovation. Entrepreneurs need to be risk takers – but they are not necessarily innovative. Innovators are problem solvers – the bigger the problem solved, the bigger the reward – we fail to recognise the profit motive tied to innovation – the return on investment of capital risked (another type of risk than the one I believe you are talking about).

Health and Safety for Competitiveness

11. What would be your message to policy makers when it comes to the precautionary principle?

Show courage to make decisions where benefits matter. As mentioned above, know the time and place to consider PP, after the risk management process has been exhausted, not in place of the process.

12. Can innovation (therefore, competitiveness) be possible with the application of the precautionary principle?

As mentioned above, it is more of an interruption and just a whiff of precaution can psychologically blacklist a substance or process within the supply chain. Regulations can, at times, encourage innovation, but not always. In the 1970s, the do-gooders who banned DDT assured us that innovation would soon find an alternative to eradicate malaria – five decades of massive death toll, and still, no one is to blame for this precautionary fail.

13.  In an ideal world, the scientific community, policy makers and industry should work together in order to guarantee the safety and health of all consumers, or should have be a healthy distrust between them to secure the health and safety of consumers?
The ideal world should include civil society, unless you have come to the conclusion that the “non” in NGO was only a temporary, transitional prefix. Distrust is never a good.

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