On September 20, 2018, a break-out session “Engaging with society” was held at the 2018 conference of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy. In the session abstract, societal engagement was defined “as a mode of science communication that could lead to better trusted risk decision-making by addressing both facts and values in an open two-way dialogue.” The session aimed to address “the relevance of societal engagement in regulatory science and decision-making; whether this engagement could be achieved in a meaningful manner, accounting for the latest developments in the field; and challenges associated with considering the wide range of societal concerns in risk governance and in communicating scientific uncertainties.”

The afternoon part was chaired by the Junshi Chen from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Cissi Askwall from the non-governmental organization (NGO) European Science Engagement Association (ESEA). ESEA’s mission is “to encourage development of public engagement, fostering innovative dialogues between science and society.”

Tracey Brown from the NGO Sense about science emphasized that people are more than ever interested in science as a way to find “truth” and “make sense of their natural and social systems.” However, to enable “public empowerment and democratic accountability,” scientists should strive to engage lay people “early enough” and learn “how to communicate and collaborate more effectively.” Brown lamented that, so far, the efforts to improve “transparency” have focused mostly on making data accessible, but not on improving the understanding, i.e., making sense of those open data. However, “reasoning around research” is what many people need. Sense about Science works to give lay people the tools with which to find relevant studies or to assess data quality and reliability. Brown also explained why she thinks that there are no scientific issues that are “too complex” or “too sensitive,” and why it is never “too late” for public engagement. She further argued that, in order to “give people information they need,” there should be less focus on communicating uncertainty, i.e., “all those little caveats that matter to you as a researcher.” Instead, scientists should communicate the weight they put on their findings in general.

Ellen Vos from the Maastricht University, Netherlands, addressed “societal engagement in EU decision-making and research.” She explained that “participation is one of the foundations of democracy in the EU.” Apart from it being required by law, participatory engagement of all parties in the EU decision-making is also desired because it “would increase the quality of decisions and lead to better decisions.” However, currently there is a “power imbalance” within the EU, where “not all stakeholders have equal access.” In particular, there is an “underrepresentation of non-business-related entities” and the involvement of citizens in the EU decision-making “seems to be minimal.” For NGOs it could also be problematic “to get engagement and information access,” Vos said. Therefore, she argued that “the relationship between EU institutions and representative associations and the public at large needs to be reconsidered so as to ensure voice independently of problem-solving needs as well as equal treatment of participants.”

In November 2017, NGO CHEM Trust highlighted unequal representation of different stakeholders among the experts involved in European Commission’s (EC) groups focused on food contact materials (FPF reported). Food Packaging Forum (FPF), previously involved in one of these groups, has been denied access since May 2015 (FPF reported).

A successful example of stakeholder engagement was provided by Melanie Carr of the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The EMA gives patients an opportunity to get involved “throughout the entire life cycle of medicines – from early development and assessment of benefit-risk to safety monitoring once medicines are released onto the market.” In 2017, EMA held “nearly 900” different activities where patients were involved, and the highlight of that year was “the first EU public hearing on medicines regulation.” Carr concluded that the EMA is “fully committed to the continued active involvement of patients (and other stakeholders) in its activities and confirms the value and contribution this makes to public health.”

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EFSA (2018). “Engaging with society.” Break-out session

EFSA (September 20, 2018). “Science, food, society: EFSA conference 2018 – day 3.

EMA (June 16, 2016). “European Medicines Agency (EMA) stakeholder relations management framework.(pdf)

EFSA (September 21, 2018). “EFSA conference closes: ‘Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.’