Friday, 07 April 2017 08:55

Sound science needed in policy making

Written by  Mark Ross
Mark Ross. Mark Ross.

New Zealand's strong export focus is unusual because our GDP relies heavily on our primary industries and export markets.

Revenue from these exports is estimated at $36.7 billion this year, but is at risk from unsubstantiated, over-hyped nonsensical claims.

The products we use to protect our animals and crops from pests and diseases have never been more thoroughly tested and screened to ensure product safety.  But pseudo-science puts NZ farmers and growers’ chances of being world leaders in productivity at risk. Pseudo-science is beliefs or statements not backed by scientific evidence. Its promoters frequently play on people’s fears and cause needless confusion.

Dr Doug Edmeades, an independent soil scientist and managing director of agKnowledge, writes about the damaging effect of pseudo-science on agriculture.  Pseudo-science, he says, sets aside evidence and asserts that the ‘truth’ is what you believe. Opinions are given equal authority irrespective of where the evidence lies. He says this led to laissez-faire politics: less government is good government.

The role of science is no longer about discovering new ‘truth’, but supporting the ‘story’ which is perceived to be the truth. Edmeades says this allows scientists to ignore contrary evidence or, worse, manipulate the evidence, if the cause is noble. He says science has been eroded to the finding of research dollars and/or serving a political agenda. There is evidence of this in NZ as agricultural science ‘cuddles up’ to the ‘organic dollar’ and in the process imbues pseudo-science with a credibility it does not deserve.

But science must be open to scrutiny, especially if it is used to inform government policies. One agency causing much confusion is the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The World Health Organization’s cancer agency publishes evaluations of whether certain chemicals, lifestyles and activities may cause cancer.

The agency’s assessments have led to everyday products, including coffee, aloe vera and talcum powder, being categorised as “possibly carcinogenic”.

The assessments call into question the safety of the food we eat, the jobs we do and the products we use in our daily lives. The agency’s work only defines the potential hazard of a substance. This can cause confusion because a hazard can be prevented by the risk principles put in place by policymakers.

The American Chemistry Council is launching a campaign for accuracy in public health research, and proposes a reform of the IARC’s processes. The council, which represents the US chemical companies, says the IARC’s work “suffers from persistent scientific and process deficiencies that result in public confusion and misinformed policy-making”.

Conclusions about a matter as important as our health must be non-biased, thorough and based on quality science that adheres to internationally recognised standards. Agcarm wants regulators to make decisions based on well-researched, sound science. Policy makers need a process for review that is consistent, transparent, science-based and as efficient as possible.

It is worrying that bad, incomplete, or misused science can cause public drama over the wrong things, yet it is rarely called out, whether wielded by the public, industry or regulators.

Have facts ceased to matter as we march toward ‘fact-free’ decision-making? As politics goes, so could public policy if we are not careful.

• Mark Ross is chief executive of Agcarm, the industry association for companies which manufacture and distribute crop protection and animal health products.


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