B Explanatory memorandum
by Mr Preda, rapporteur
1 The independence and impartiality of expert assessments
form a condition sine qua non for their reliability and legitimacy.
Unfortunately, recent events have shown us that the assessments
were not always performed independently. It is fitting to recall
that the etymology of the word “im-partiality” implies that the opinion
delivered is not that of a single party but is a matter of collective
debate by two or more parties.
2 What is a scientific
2.1 General considerations
2 An assessment is an investigation which one person
or a group of persons possessing knowledge and know-how in the field
concerned is asked to carry out by another person or group, generally
a public institution.
3 An assessment is needed when a decision which is to be taken
requires knowledge of a field which is not within the sphere of
common knowledge. When the field concerned is known to be of a scientific
nature, one or more players within the sector concerned, and possibly
in associated sectors, are usually called upon. The assessment thus
provides the link between knowledge and a policy decision.
4 It is also usual for an expert assessment to be requested
after a natural or other disaster which has serious effects on the
environment and on individuals' health.
2.2 Assessment frameworks
5 The first questions which arise are who has requested
the assessment and who is to finance it. In practice, it is very
often the case that the findings vary according to the intended
follow-up action, particularly when those commissioning the assessment
have direct interests in the field being assessed. This is also
and especially true of scientific assessments. On the other hand,
the approach is very different when assessments are made following
an incident, and particularly following a disaster. Indeed, the
implications are economic, financial and possibly political.
2.3 The particular nature of the
6 The scientific approach has certain particular features.
It operates in accordance with its own structure and with a specific
language and codes.
7 Making a scientific assessment of a situation presupposes
building an analytical model, that is to say a set of abstract processes
describing how a real situation develops. A model is necessarily
based on consideration of a limited number of parameters, the selection
of which – often on an unclear basis – is crucial and necessarily
open to challenge. The model is based on assumptions and takes account
of the parameters used in its production.
8 The results yielded by this model are then compared to known
results. The model is then presented to a gathering of scientists
(and/or published) and subjected to collective review, during which
its author is called upon to reply to questions from his or her
peers. Several models are sometimes developed for the same situation.
9 The models serve as tools for predicting and simulating possible
10 The question whether a given model is well adapted to another
situation is rarely raised. However perfect a model may be, it is
always confined to a particular, often ideal, situation. The free-fall
model, for example, takes no account of friction. At present, models
that have to reflect the effect of friction vary in their efficiency –
it is very difficult to describe the fall of an object in precise
terms owing to the considerable number of parameters to be taken
into account. In the case of a climate model, the number of parameters
is even greater and it will be even harder to create.
11 Models devised in this way enable the development of a situation
to be predicted. This prediction is based on experimental data used
by the model, and the accuracy of these data will significantly
influence the results produced by the model. Let us take climate
forecasting models as an example. In its 2007 report on climate
change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) based
its findings on the temperature changes recorded from 1850 to the
present day. Temperatures have been recorded precisely for only
fifty to seventy years; earlier values are not as exact, and the
results provided by the various models will accordingly not be very
precise. It will then be necessary to gauge the reliability of the
results obtained, putting a figure on the probability, for instance,
that the earth is warming up. In this connection, it may come as
a surprise to note that the temperatures announced by the IPCC for
the 1850s are accurate to one tenth of a degree.
12 Scientists are used to dealing with models. They know their
limits and are therefore aware that the credibility of the result
provided by the model is limited. This credibility is, incidentally,
often calculated: a GPS location is pinpointed to within a few metres
13 The non-scientific public is frequently unaware of this aspect
and often expects a perfectly accurate and indisputable result.
14 It is extremely difficult to model, and hence scientifically
assess, actual physical situations. Some details of the water cycle
remain unclear, and it is scientifically impossible is say exactly
why a particular forest is showing signs of weakness or what will
become of each molecule of fertiliser spread on a field. By contrast, climate
study centres have a considerable amount of data at their disposal,
such as information on sulphur and CO2 concentrations
in the atmosphere. These data enable assumptions to be made and
warnings sounded, but no more than that from a scientific standpoint.
The process of scientific identification is necessarily limited by
the multiplicity of factors that come into play in natural processes.
15 Finally, it must be pointed out that scientific research work
is steered by the scientific group itself and not from outside it.
The focus of new work is often dependent on the results of previous
work. The development of a new law or model rarely follows a linear
3 Position and special role of
the scientific expert
16 Frequently, it is a decision-making body which commissions
an assessment from a scientist or group of scientists, who usually
belong to a public research institution not part of the decision-making
body. This is the case, for instance, in France with the National
Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). The scientist is thus positioned
at the interface between the relevant knowledge and the policy decision
and has to input the scientific knowledge into the decision-making
17 The scientist thus faces what for him or her is an unfamiliar
situation, namely the requirement to provide, by a specified deadline,
the answer to a question that must make it possible to take or at
least help to take a decision. In a scientific context, replying
“I don’t know” is perfectly acceptable, whereas this reply is more difficult
to formulate in the context of an expert assessment and is often
unacceptable for the decision-making body.
18 This body needs at least a pseudo-commitment or, at all events,
19 Quite often, the scientist who has become an expert will then
be called upon to go beyond the replies resulting from scientific
analyses and to give his or her own opinion, which will normally
only commit him or her on the basis of his or her own convictions.
20 By way of illustration, mention might be made of the answers
provided by the IPCC in 1990 concerning the future of the climate:
“The calculations convince us that …”, “we consider that …”. In
this particular case, the models and their results are marred by
significant uncertainties and the only correct answer from the scientific
point of view is, “We are not in a position today to provide a scientific
reply to the question asked”. However, the group goes further and
gives its opinion – it oversteps, or rather disregards, its scientific
role so as to comply with that of an expert.
4 Credibility of the assessment
21 The question of the credibility of a scientific assessment
therefore naturally arises. In order to reply to the question asked,
the scientist or his or her group will necessarily be called upon
to go beyond the purely technical results. This action is not open
to reproach in itself but must be clearly acknowledged. It no longer has
to do with the result of an indisputable technical analysis but
with the group’s conviction, which is also important. A clear distinction
must be drawn between scientific results and personal conviction.
The scientist’s “I don’t know” must be rehabilitated and not denigrated.
22 In order to obtain a credible assessment, should it be entrusted
to just one expert or should a panel of experts be set up? The choice
of experts is crucial, and that is the crux of the problem. In this
context, it seems essential to avoid preferring hyper-qualification
as a guarantee of quality, as that is often synonymous with considerable
specialisation, whereas an assessment requires multidisciplinary
and transdisciplinary knowledge.
23 Making this kind of assessment can clearly be seen to constitute
a discipline with its own requirements, but it is not currently
recognised as such. It appears important to specify the skills appropriate
to assessment. Some of the scientists employed in laboratories could
thus be involved on a more or less permanent basis in producing
assessments. Themes such as “water” or “oil” could be the subject
of ongoing work, with publications, specialist debates and public
24 Another pitfall to be avoided is conflict of interests. In
order to do their work, most researchers need to find funding in
addition to public money (which is often insufficient). This leads
them to work for private interest groups, which have recourse to
the best specialists in their field. In the context of an expert
assessment, it would be a pity to do without these skills just because
they also benefit a private group involved in the subject area of
the assessment. But of course the potential conflicts of interests
must be realised, and their compatibility with the specific assessment
25 One question that arises is whether or not it is necessary
to call on so-called independent experts, government experts or
dependent specialist experts. These three categories offer both
advantages and drawbacks, but the choice of the category primarily
depends on the nature of the assessment to be carried out and of
the persons or organisations directly involved.
26 It is also important to provide a precise definition of the
27 That leaves the issue of the methodology employed to produce
the assessment. It appears necessary to set up groups of scientists
whose members are bound to have divergent opinions. The group must
consist of at least two sub-groups, one arguing in favour of the
proposition and the other having an opposite stance. Scientific
disputation is essential for the proper conduct of the analysis.
28 In this connection, and in view of the nature of the questions
asked in the context of an assessment, it would seem worthwhile
to establish a “public forum” for assessments. A public process
constitutes a sort of critical sounding board.
29 It should be noted that this approach is different from that
often employed, which is to produce an assessment followed by a
counter-assessment. This method excludes the cut and thrust of debate.
5 Expert assessment and the concept
30 A scientific assessment does not eliminate risk,
but has to determine whether a risk is present, and what kind of
risk it is. It is here that the crux of the problem lies. The question
of strategic or environmental evaluation should obviously be raised.
31 Expert assessments following disasters are not only required
to establish their causes, but should also have the capacity to
lay down and put forward safety and prevention rules for the future.
32 The need has also emerged to consider the issue of the consequences
of expert assessments where the findings have cross-border implications,
for example an assessment relating to the laying of a gas pipeline or
the construction of a nuclear power station.
6 Use of expert assessments
33 What use is made of an expert assessment? In order
to answer this question, it can be reiterated that an assessment
is generally commissioned by a decision-making body, often of a
political nature. The aim is therefore to help policy makers take
a decision. That is the primary function of the assessment.
34 Responsibility is then shared between the decision maker and
the scientist. It might, incidentally, be asked whether in some
specific cases an assessment is not commissioned when the decision
has already been taken.
35 An assessment may, unfortunately, also serve the interests
of lobby groups and private groups with financial objectives.
7 Comments on a few specific
36 At this stage of the discussion, it seems wise to
look at certain specific cases, which are not exhaustive.
The problem of asbestos is a most telling example.
True, for very many years certain groups met with a rebuff and went
unheard. Thanks to stubbornness and more objective assessments,
as well as the European Union’s successive programmes of environmental
action accentuating the importance of preventing and reducing pollution
of the environment, asbestos was finally recognised as a first-category
pollutant with serious effects on human health and the environment.Note
European Council Directive
/217/EEC on the prevention and reduction of environmental
pollution by asbestos seeks to prevent environmental pollution by
asbestos; in addition, the substance was designated in Annex XVII
of Regulation (EC) No. 1907/2006 concerning the Registration, Evaluation,
Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH).
39 The aim of these legislative provisions is to protect public
and environmental health, to prevent, reduce and control environmental
pollution by asbestos, to restrict the sale and use of asbestos
and of products containing asbestos and to ensure that such products
40 Inadequate management of the risks inherent in the use of
dangerous substances can have irreversible consequences for human
and environmental health. Workers' health can be affected in a number
of ways, ranging from slight irritation of the eyes or skin, or
asthma, to reproductive health problems and congenital malformations,
or even cancer. The health impact can result from short-term exposure
or multiple periods of exposure with the long-term accumulation
of substances in the organism.
41 To prevent or reduce substances' negative environmental effects,
above all surface and ground water pollution, soil pollution and
air pollution, including the greenhouse effect, and any risk to
public health, it is necessary to conduct environmental and human
health hazard assessments.
42 Since hazard assessments are made by a number of entities
(industry, public authorities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs)),
differences may arise with regard to the interpretation of the results,
and it is important that the hazard assessment should be underpinned
by a code of ethics, which could constitute a starting point for
overcoming these difficulties.
43 Environmental hazard assessment is also encountered
in the case of biocidal products, plant protection products and
all other chemical substances which, by virtue of the quantity placed
on the market, come within the scope of Regulation (EC) No. 1907/2006
mentioned above, which encompasses a registration procedure, an
evaluation procedure and a restriction procedure.
44 These procedures involve interpreting all the existing information
on certain uses of substances, regarding which a number of hazard
management options are developed.
45 In Romania for example, with regard to pesticides/plant protection
products, in accordance with national and EU law, applicants for
the authorisation of various chemical products/substances destined
to be used, sold or placed on the market are required to seek an
environmental opinion from the ministry of environment and forestry.
To obtain this opinion, the applicant must submit a file containing
data on the eco-toxicological aspects and the action of the product
in the environment.
To prevent or reduce the negative environmental effects of
pesticides/plant protection products, above all surface and ground
water pollution, soil pollution and air pollution, and the dangers
they pose for public health and the environment, it is necessary
to conduct environmental and human health hazard assessments. Following
these environmental assessments, the following are determined:
- environmental restrictions (aquatic
organisms, birds, bees, etc.);
- the distances at which pesticides can be used without
entailing a risk of polluting surface or ground water;
- the indications of average risk level, which must obligatorily
appear on the labels of the products in question.
47 The process of interpreting the results of hazard assessments
gives rise to much discussion among the European Union member States'
experts involved in these procedures, as a result of differing interpretations of
48 Standardisation of the action taken by the experts on the
basis of a code of ethics could constitute a starting point for
overcoming these malfunctions.
7.3 Natural disasters
49 Credible damage assessment during and after natural
disasters (floods, landslides, dangerous weather events such as
droughts or forest fires) constituted a key consideration in the
drafting of national and EU law in this field. This aspect was,
moreover, addressed both in Directive 2007/60/EC on the assessment
and management of flood risks and in Romania's national strategy
for flood risk management in the medium and long term.
50 The floods that have occurred in Romania in recent years have
shown that correct, rapid assessment of damage necessitates high
resolution satellite images to supplement the data supplied by the
damage assessment committees established at the level of each affected
51 Apart from flood intervention measures, consideration must
be given to related events such as accidental pollution of residential
areas or industrial estates as a result of flooding. To manage these
risks, owners must make budget provisions for flood protection work
and the authorities administering watercourses must budget the equipment
and resources needed to deal with pollution.
52 During periods of drought, particular attention must be paid
to the risk of forest fires, which, along with floods, cause considerable
damage to forest resources, damage which must be properly assessed
with a view to rehabilitating the areas affected.
8 Conclusion and recommendations
53 In the light of the foregoing, it is clearly apparent
that specimen rules urgently need to be laid down for the purpose
of defining the context in which an assessment must be placed in
order to make the final results indisputable.
54 Unarguably, experts will not always be able to ascertain the
full implications and the human and environmental impact of the
problem referred to them for assessment, and some uncertainty will
55 That is why these assessments must plainly be made in a collegial
framework, including groups of scientists with presumably divergent
opinions as well as civil society players.
56 Furthermore, the traceability of assessments will make for
greater transparency and independence.
57 Lastly, it would be advisable to have specialised experts,
especially in fields requiring technical knowledge, and to produce
a handbook of good practice for them. These experts might be supervised
by a committee of wise persons which would ensure due application
of ethical rules.