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3.2  Risk governance

Innovation improves our quality of life, and is essential for economic growth. However, it can also raise uncertainties and concerns, and can bring new hazards to our health and environment. Scientific work is then needed to address these issues and to help identify and assess the risks posed by these hazards, and to reduce uncertainties.

There is rarely a simple answer to the question 'is it safe?' We know that we face a variety of risks in our everyday life. Some risks we take voluntarily, others simply cannot be avoided. When we decide whether something is 'safe', we consider not only the likelihood of harm but also factors such as the likely benefits and the existence of alternatives.

Risk governance - embracing risk identification, assessment, management and communication - has become a crucial but often highly controversial component of public policy.

In recent years the European Union has dramatically overhauled its risk assessment and risk management processes in the areas of consumer health and food safety. Regulatory measures in these areas are founded on scientific advice from committees based on the principles of excellence, independence and transparency (Communication on consumer health and food safety, COM(1997)183, 30.04.1997). The Union is at the point of setting up a European Food Authority to provide independent risk assessment (1) . The Commission has also set out its approach to the use of the Precautionary Principle (Communication from the Commission on the Precautionary Principle; COM(2000)1, 02.02.2000), suggesting guidelines for risk management when faced with scientific uncertainty, and stating general principles always to be applied in risk management (proportionality, non-discrimination, consistency, examination of the benefits and costs of action or lack of action, examination of scientific developments).

Much has therefore already been achieved in improving transparency, accountability, and adaptation to the progress of scientific knowledge.

Improving practices through networking at European level

Nevertheless, further steps can be taken. Firstly, the lessons already learned in the area of consumer health and food safety can be applied to other sectors. Secondly, in all areas, we should examine ways to provide for a more dynamic interface and better communication between risk managers, risk assessors and those carrying out the underpinning scientific research. Thirdly, we can strive to further open up risk governance to debate and scrutiny (e.g. 'What are the costs and benefits, and how do we measure them?' 'How safe is safe enough?'). In pursuing these aims, we must profit from information and good practice across and beyond the continent.

The Commission will examine ways of improving such an interface. This could include mechanisms that provide for dialogue, joint problem definition, and an iterative exchange of information and views. It will also pay special attention to the communication of risk issues.

Action 35

The Commission will initiate an exchange of experience and good practice between key actors concerned with risk issues, in different sectors and at different levels across Europe. In the light of this, it will elaborate guidelines for improved risk governance, including on how best to communicate scientific uncertainty and risk issues. These proposals would build on the existing policy framework.

Building mutual trust

The Commission supported the TRUSTNET project aimed at analysing the factors that influence the credibility, effectiveness and legitimacy of the scientific and regulatory framework for hazardous activities, as well as developing more coherent, comprehensive and equitable approaches for assessing and managing risks. Through a broad range of case studies, including sensitive issues related to the environment, energy and industry, it offered insight into the social management of risk. The project set up an informal network bringing together European decision-makers, academics, experts and stakeholders to promote dialogue and interaction.

(1) Amended Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Authority, and laying down procedures in matters of food safety; COM(2001) 475 final, 7.8.2001.

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