Science-based policies? Maybe not…

Reflections after the eight-hour conference on the identification criteria for Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) held on 1st June 2015, Brussels.

Defendants of ‘science-based’ policies claim that there is too much drama, too many feelings and too much ideology in the debate on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). No one dares to question them. As everybody knows, in the world we live in, ideology is bad and science is good. This approach in itself reeks of ideology. Science might not be ideological (not going to enter these dark waters), but the use you make of it, the role you give it within a society, that certainly is. Analysing developments in the EDCs dossier, one could arrive to the conclusion that ‘science-based’ policies are not only far from being a good idea, but moreover, they are simply impossible.

EDCs are chemicals that are everywhere and could have negative effects on our endocrine systems contributing to obesity, infertility and even cancer. To address what appears to be a serious public health risk, the Commission has sought to establish the ‘scientific’ (also called ‘objective’) criteria to identify EDCs.

For those who don’t know, the draft criteria did not even reach the inter-service consultation stage. Disagreements were abundant, from social, inter-institutional, intra-institutional, amongst Member States…and also at the scientific level. Toxicologists and endocrinologists fought each other succeeding only in providing conflicting evidence and ammunition for both industry and NGOs. The Commission now estimates that the criteria will be ready by the end of 2016, precisely three years after its initial deadline. Great. We can call this a failure. But, what exactly did go wrong?

What might have gone wrong is a misunderstanding of the role of science in EU policy making: the mistake was not so much the attempt to deliver ‘scientific criteria’, but to make these criteria the cornerstone of any future policy. Instead of using the criteria as a tool for better policy making, the criteria have now become the basis of any eventual policy on EDCs which means that the consensus of the scientific community is required before any legislation can be adopted: “First the scientific criteria, then the impacts” said the Acting Director General for Health. Really?

Well, perhaps not: scientific consensus on something that science has not really begun to understand seems unlikely. Instead the Commission may have to decide  which one is the ‘right’ science. And that may not be scientific at all. At the end of the day, the decision is going to be ideological and practical. In other words, it is going to be political.


Isabel de Castro

Associate Director, EU

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