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‘Regulatory agencies should be questioned’ science journalists say at ECSJ 2018


‘As science journalists, we shouldn’t trust anyone’

Toulouse, France

The European Conference of Science Journalists (ECSJ) started in Toulouse France on 8 July, and the first question the conference tackled was whether citizens can trust the European Union (EU) agencies which regulate various industries such as foods chemicals and others.

Bernhard Url, Director of EFSA,  Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) Martin Pigeon, Sense about Science EU Director Sofie Vanthournout and Le Monde’s Stéphane Foucart attended the panel, which was moderated by Tania Rabesandratana, a Science magazine contributing correspondent.

Rabesandratana opened the session with a discussion on the importance of journalistic independence. Other discussions included the recent glyphosate controversy, whereby EU’s food safety watchdog recommended that glyphosate was safe but the agency’s report seemed not to be too different from a text prepared by a glyphosate manufacturer; a point highly criticized by science media.

Intense industry lobbying on European agencies such as EFSA (food safety), ECHA (chemicals), EMA (drugs) and what can be done to foster independence of the institutions were among the questions tackled.

Can agencies be trusted?

Not surprisingly, EFSA Director Url asserted that the agencies can be trusted. “We are the guardians of the methodology, we are the guardians of the data.. We pursue the public interest, we pursue excellence in science,” he said. He also pointed out that EFSA uses raw data from studies and doesn’t rely on industry statistics.

Foucart was blunt starting his discussion on whether the agencies can be trusted. “As science journalists, I don’t think we should trust anyone,” he said. He also noted that the agencies have differences in the opinion saying that although science is transparent, the regulatory studies are not.

Both Foucart and Martin Pigeon stated that studies used by industry to apply for EFSA should be funded by industry but no longer be carried out by the industry.

Industry lobbying

“The industry has had a very hefty hand at doing political work to create loopholes in how pesticides are evaluated,” noted Pigeon. “The way pesticides are evaluated in Europe at the moment is a joke. And a bad one. We’re paying a price for it.” he added.

He also warned that science journalists are key targets for industry lobbying.

But what can be done by journalists do to improve the situation? Foucart’s answer was “Investigate, investigate and investigate.” Sofie Vanthournout said scientists should talk to all sides and involve citizens to show every aspect of the debate.

Can the media be trusted?

Url, however, also pointed criticism to the media, saying it is guilty of cherry picking, “When we say glyphosate is safe, you write we are corrupt. When we write neonicotinoids should be banned you write that  EFSA represents the scientific consensus and their advice should be followed immediately,” he said.

Reporting by Barış Altıntaş, MLSA