Annegaaike Leopold, Calidris Environmental BV; Charmaine Ajao, European Chemicals Agency (ECHA); and Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, RWTH Aachen University
This special session was held during the SETAC Europe 29th Annual Meeting last May in Helsinki, Finland, and looked at the values that impact our view of research findings.
It is well documented that scientists on opposite sides of a policy-relevant scientific controversy commonly perceive the other side as biased but see themselves as objective. It is also well known that scholars on opposite sides can use the same data and yet be strengthened in their (opposing) positions. Less is known—at least to the SETAC community—about the factors that lead to this phenomenon. Could value judgements be impacting our scientific thinking? “But surely, we are all objective scientists,” you might reply.
Building on the success of our special session on mutual understanding as a pre-requisite to properly communicating to target audiences, which was held at the SETAC Europe 28th Annual Meeting in 2018 in Rome, Italy, we prompted the speakers and the audience to think about the role philosophical positions and values might play in scientifically diverging views – what people choose to study, how they study it, how the outcome of the research is described, depending for example, on their role in society (e.g., industry, regulators).
Taking as examples two issues that are hotly debated in the scientific community, the use of pesticides and the risk posed by food contact chemicals, we wanted to learn from contradicting views, perspectives and opinions about the different sides of the scientific debate. We hoped these topics would fuel a discussion about how far we can take the idea of transparent, science-based communication, where it meets its limitations, and how we in the SETAC community should deal with this phenomenon.
The event was part of the special session series to execute on two of SETAC Europe’s strategic goals: to support science-based risk communication (goal 1) and to facilitate optimization of processes in transfer of science to regulation (goal 2).
Kevin Elliot from Michigan State University kicked off the entire session and set the scene focusing on three major ways in which “philosophical positions and values” can result in scientific disagreements:
- Scientists may differ in the background assumptions they make as a result of different world views or ethical principles they uphold, values they have regarding public health and economic growth, personal priorities, disciplinary background (e.g., toxicological versus epidemiological).
- They may accept different levels or standards of evidence in order to draw conclusions – for example, some scientists consider a particular trend in data as sufficient evidence, others require a specific level of evidence.
- They may frame a problem or decision in different ways and therefore call for different kinds of scientific information.
Agriculture is an example of a fast-growing area of research, with major implications for society, and as a consequence is likely to involve value judgements that may arise from the differences in approach outlined by Elliott. Differences in framing, for example, may determine whether the focus is on crops with the greatest output or that social impacts are the driving force (or both).
Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France spoke about how the use of pesticides should be critically considered. Depending on experimental design, sources, values and conflicts of interest, experimental data can be interpreted differently. Using neonicotinoids as an example, he showed how contradictory science can be. He concluded that a comprehensive approach to environmental research should aim at including enhancement of quality, richness and biodiversity. He recognized that values (and conflicts of interest) are one of the drivers that determine the way in which the precautionary principle is taken up in one’s judgement. Scientific proof and values contributed towards the banning of all neonicotinoids in France.
Juan Gonzalez Valero of Syngenta supported a shift in crop protection as an undeniable demand. At the same time, he argued, crop protection, be it mechanically, chemically or biologically designed, molecule based or built in through genetics, is essential for agriculture. All these technologies need to be safe for humans and the environment, and for the protection of food quality and quantity. For him, this means a strong call for innovation and a clear need for there to be an agreement on the core principles driving the innovation. A major challenge is that one’s feelings about agricultural practices depend on how much they rely (or perceive to rely) on agriculture. Gonzalez Valero identified a disconnect between parts of society that live in close association with agricultural production and urban populations.
Tove Jern from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Finland presented the view from the regulatory side. She introduced the Finnish experience of promoting sustainable use of pesticides and innovation. This concept largely relies on extensive training of pesticide users, even with a compulsory exam. Their central goal is to reduce the health risks, maintain low residues, promote more diverse crop rotation, and practice better handling and storing of pesticides. As their small selection of pesticides is a challenge, they appreciate more research in the field and as much involvement as possible from all stakeholders.
There’s no doubt that more than 40 years of peer-reviewed publications support the scientific opinion that chemicals from food contact material migrate into food. Migration or transfer of food contact chemicals (FCCs) into food leads to exposure to humans. However, the question about how to do the risk assessment of FCCs diverts scientific thought on food contact chemicals. What is the level of exposure that causes adverse effects? How realistic are such exposure scenarios? Hence, is the risk real? Values play a role in answering these questions.
Jane Muncke of the Food Packaging Forum, Switzerland, separated fact from fiction regarding food contact chemicals and human health. She informed us that there are 100,000 migrating substances – chemicals and molecules – that are present in final food-contact articles. Of these, 1,100 are listed for regulation in the EU and 100 are controlled. Muncke argued that the current approach to risk assessment of food contact chemicals is ineffective and that the absence of data is effectively seen as the absence of harm. In her opinion, there’s a clear lack of information about the toxicity of substances that are intentionally added to food packaging. Even more importantly, novel approaches need to be developed to assess the unintentionally added substances. In addition, Muncke pointed out that, in her view, an enhanced hazard characterization is required to address the most prevalent chronic diseases in the human population.
Thomas Gude of Swiss Quality Testing Services called for caution when considering the replacement of food contact chemicals of known toxicity. Actual concentrations appearing in the goods might not be high enough to cause any concern. On the other hand, replacement chemicals might not be well characterized, and they might not fit into established food safety systems. As he sees it, a switch of the focus away from single compounds to full solutions would be a favorable pragmatic approach. Values very clearly play a role in the risk–benefit approaches that Gude believes are necessary. The question becomes, “What are we willing to accept?’’
In the frame of the EFSA risk assessment, data and methodologies in the scientific evaluation of food contact materials play a pivotal role, as Claudia Roncancio Pena of EFSA explained. She elaborated on EFSA’s work to collect and integrate information from experimental studies, modeling and data inventories to assess the potential risk posed by food contact materials. The main aim of EFSA’s work is to determine whether a chemical is likely to migrate, and if so, if the characteristics of the material should be changed. Roncancio Pena explained that, in other words, regulation alone is not enough. She emphasized the steps EFSA is taking to increase transparency and engage different stakeholders, which enhances the scientific opinion released by the scientific panels of EFSA. The values that the committee aims to uphold are scientific expertise, innovation, cooperation, independence and openness; minority opinions are reported and taken on board. Even within such panels, one of the underlying questions during their discussions is on the amount of evidence needed before the experts can conclude that the substance is safe.
After each presentation, the audience was given a short time to ask questions for clarification. Following each of the series of presentations, the speakers formed a panel and discussed with each other and the audience the role played by values and philosophical positions and how SETAC scientists might deal with these. Experienced moderators fed and guided the discussions. For the pesticides block, the moderators were Thomas Backhaus from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and Mamta Patel of Chemical Watch, UK. The discussion on food contact chemicals was moderated by Gunilla Öberg from the University of British Columbia, Canada, and Mamta Patel of Chemical Watch, UK.
The discussion was lively and brought up issues that are all informed by values, for example: How do we increase transparency in the face of incentives not to be transparent? How do we marry trust in regulatory decisions with uncertainty? How do we overcome bias in decision making when aiming at societal values? In the face of needing more data, should we limit innovation and test as many chemicals as possible? Where lies the burden of proof? What do we understand by safe when we cannot prove the absence of an effect? What risks are we willing to accept? Should scientists only inform or try to resolve problems and make decisions? How do we deal with the dilemma that companies stand to benefit from chemical production while society carries the risk: Whose values prevail? How do we deal with the double standards applied to traditional pesticides and biologicals–the latter have not gone through the same kind of assessment?
At the end of the session, it was concluded that we as scientists need to make a journey into our inner selves and, from that position of insight, sit down with people who do not have the same view. Representatives of different sectors of the public can be engaged for this purpose. This can help in achieving a clear understanding of the personal perspectives that drive their views and the full footprint of decisions. For this to happen, it was recognized that we as scientists are still too much of a closed community. We shouldn’t only explain our results but also how we got there to make the findings and conclusions more transparent and hence trustworthy. Such openness will enhance the understanding during the decision-making phase and could potentially assist in balancing scientific proof with value judgement. For all this, we need to find the right tools to open the door.
We hope that this special session contributed to opening the door and allowed us to better understand the background of our own thinking so as to communicate more effectively with others, both affected stakeholders and society as a whole.