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“Perceived” risks and the role of science

“Science is credible if it operates independently of day-to-day politics and economic interests.”

Prof. Andreas Hensel is president of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR)

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) was set up on 1 November 2002 as part of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). The BfR identifies possible risks from food, substances and products, assesses them according to scientific criteria and actively contributes to reducing them.

Since risk assessment and risk management are carried out by separate institutions, risk assessment remains independent of political, economic and social interests. The independent nature of the BfR, as laid down by law, aims to ensure the scientific integrity of the research findings and assessments.

GMO Safety: Do perceived risks justify state intervention? This was the subject of discussion at the celebratory event marking the fifth anniversary of Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), which took place in November. The main emphasis was on the often significant differences between the public perception of risks and their actual scientific assessment. In other words on “subjective” versus “objective” risks. Can you outline these differences?

Andreas Hensel: The public can have a more serious perception of risks than the scientific community, but the reverse is also possible – the scientific community may issue a warning, but the general public fails to perceive an appreciable risk. These differences can be attributed to the different criteria used to assess risks. A scientific risk assessment is generally based on clearly defined scientific criteria such as risk potential and probability of harm, which can be estimated using defined methods and combined to give a total assessment. The public uses different risk assessment criteria, and indeed they have to, because generally they have little or no understanding of scientific risk assessment, and experience new risks initially through the media. To decide whether risk communications are relevant to them (and whether they may be at risk), consumers fall back on the risk characteristics which they perceive as being more accessible and important: for example, how well known the risk is, how easily it can be controlled, the associated potential for disaster and whether they are exposed to the risk voluntarily or involuntarily.

GMO Safety: The BfR assesses risks on a strictly scientific basis. But this can mean that results obtained in this way and measures derived from them are viewed as inadequate from the perspective of subjective risk perception. Given this, can scientifically-based risk assessments be accepted and recognized by society?

Andreas Hensel: To ensure that scientific risk assessments are relevant to society, they must be communicated clearly. This means that they must reach the intended recipients, be comprehensible, and provide answers to the questions that the general public is asking the scientific community. The relevance and acceptance of our work definitely increases when we take into account aspects of subjective risk perception when conducting our assessments.

Although it is not possible to incorporate these aspects into the scientific assessment itself, they can be included in recommending courses of action for risk management, in the choice of risk subjects we work on, and also in risk communication. For example, using devices such as public forums and consumer conferences, we can create a real opportunity for dialogue between the general public and the scientific community.

“Transparency is a requirement for trust and credibility”

GMO Safety: Where questions of risk assessment are concerned, society is often suspicious of the science. Presumably the BfR comes across this too. How can the institute gain trust and credibility for its science-based work in today’s media-driven society?

Andreas Hensel: That’s not entirely true. Science enjoys considerable trust in society: as a source of risk information, it is trusted more than most of the other stakeholders such as politicians or industry representatives. This in itself suggests one of the prerequisites for trust and credibility in scientific risk assessment: it must be perceived as coming from a neutral entity which makes its assessments independently of day-to-day politics and economic interests. This is the case with the BfR, and was also one of the principal motivations for setting up the institute: risk assessment should be independent of risk management. Transparency is the second key requirement for trust and credibility. Risk assessment processes and results must be presented in the most transparent and understandable way possible. Experiences in the UK in the wake of the BSE crisis have shown that, even after a massive crisis in consumer protection, consumer confidence can return, if government risk assessment is conducted and communicated transparently.

GMO Safety: But scientists themselves frequently fail to agree. It appears that almost any opinion can be proven scientifically by an expert. This is bewildering for consumers: how are they to recognize and accept what is scientifically reliable or “right”? Can the BfR provide guidance?

Andreas Hensel: It’s not the role of the BfR to produce a consensus, but rather to moderate different scientific statements, work out the differences between them and present them in a transparent way. Our panels bring together a wide range of experts; this is also an attempt in some way to reduce the diversity of opinions.

“When something is perceived as natural, it is also perceived as safe.”

GMO Safety: As well as many other areas, the BfR also assesses the safety of GM food. Here, the divide between “perceived” risks and scientific knowledge is particularly great. Can you explain this?

Andreas Hensel: Food is a particularly sensitive topic because it is essential for life and many consumers believe that making the right choice is important for maintaining their own health. In addition, the handling of crises such as those triggered by BSE and dioxin, has shaken public confidence in governments’ ability to guarantee food safety.

Furthermore, potential risks from genetically modified plants and food produced from them are perceived as hazardous because they are not seen as being connected to products produced by traditional breeding methods and techniques, which are perceived as “natural” and therefore safe. This is confirmed by the findings of the Eurobarometer study, a Europe-wide consumer survey which has been conducted regularly since 1992. This shows that in general there is less trust in new technologies, and that levels of information about actual dangers and risks which can result from food and manufacturing processes are low.

GMO Safety: What might a sensible and measured approach to risk communication on plant genetic engineering look like?

Andreas Hensel: Readily understandable information about safety assessment methods, based on a comparison between genetically modified plants and food produced from them and conventional products, must provide the basis for risk communication on plant genetic engineering. Comparisons of the advantages and disadvantages for the different users of plant genetic engineering products, presented in a way which is clearly intelligible to lay people and based on research findings, are also helpful for an objective assessment.

GMO Safety does both in an exemplary fashion.