Reference : Handling complex risks issues in the domain of environment and health - SCOPE
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Law, criminology & political science : Political science, public administration & international relations
Handling complex risks issues in the domain of environment and health - SCOPE
Torfs, Rudi mailto [ > > ]
Zwetkoff, Catherine mailto [Université de Liège - ULiège > Département de science politique > Département de science politique >]
Fallon, Catherine mailto [Université de Liège - ULiège > Département de science politique > Analyse et évaluation des politiques publiques >]
Buekers, J. [ > > ]
Stassen, K. [ > > ]
Hendrickx, Kim mailto [Université de Liège - ULiège > Département de science politique > Gouvernance et société >]
Vanhaeren, Stéphanie mailto [Université de Liège - ULiège > Département de science politique > Gouvernance et société >]
cornelis, Bernard [ > > ]
Belgian Science Policy
[en] risk management ; Environmental health ; integrated assessment
[en] This research report has its origin in the notion that classical risk assessment
paradigms no longer suffice to deal with complex, uncertain and ambiguous
risks. Risk assessment was developed as a scientific tool to tackle uncertain
consequences of human activities by organizing, evaluating, integrating and
presenting scientific information to inform decision-making. Over the years, this type
of risk assessment has proved effective in protecting public health and the
environment from major environmental hazards with high relative risks. In the modern
„risk society‟ classical risk assessment fails to handle complex risks characterized by
radical uncertainty and a plurality of legitimate perspectives and values. Public
authorities have to deal with issues/risks were facts are uncertain and values are
contested. To answer to the increased demands of policymakers and the public for
guidance on risk management new processes for the governance of these risks need
to be developed.
Weberian bureaucratic structures and forms of cooperation are working in a logic of
specialisation of work, where distribution of information and knowledge, structures of
decisions and allocation of responsibilities are organised ab initio in a stable
organisational frame. Such a structure is not capable of resisting to the emergence of
new risks which are often not identified as such at start and require a more
integrative form of assessment, integrating inter-disciplinary collaboration on a
specific policy problem that is complex, uncertain, perhaps unlimited in temporal and
spatial scale, and interlinked with other phenomena.
If the frame of reflexivity (Beck, 2003) is adopted, we thus have to recognise that a
global mastering of these risks is not possible. What is now requested is the
settlement of conditions for another type of open debate. Experiments in new forms
of public participation in the management of technological developments (like e.g.
citizen panels on long-term storage of nuclear waste1, or on cars and health2) already
inspired the public administrators in their search for new procedural forms of decision
making in areas of uncertainty.
For a certain category of risks inclusion of the public, next to industrial stakeholders,
organised environmental interest groups and governmental agencies and
administrations is warranted, to integrate different opinions and values and to
develop adequate policies. Network governance should be developed, where
stakeholders are invited to speak up and where power structures are reconsidered
and flattened. Here the authorities are recommended to exercise their capacities not
as a centre of knowledge and top-down decision, but as a facilitator for
communication and collaboration within networking structures, mobilising numerous
experts and stakeholders, including the population itself (Gilbert, 2002), to develop
new options which are socially acceptable and technically efficient (Fallon et al.,
2008a & b). This requires a different mindset where the plurality of frames and fluidity
of boundaries; the need for contextualisation; the construction of unstable temporary
networks, the plurality of rationalities and the inherent uncertainties, social and
technical (Callon, 1986) of the issues considered. As uncertainties are recognised,
scientists are not anymore expected to close the controversy but rather to contribute
to the technical quality of the process.
The public decision-making process (DMP) should be designed to organise the
conditions for an optimal tradeoff between scientific soundness and social
acceptability of decisions, in a context where the precautionary principle is relevant.
The key issue, framing or “structuring the research questions”, is a method for
deciding how to manage scientific uncertainty. From literature review and past
studies, we posit that a better quality DMP could be achieved by using tools for an
integrated and comparative risk assessment and management. These approaches
rely on interdisciplinary risk assessment – relevant soft and hard sciences are
engaged together into the knowledge production process rather than mobilized side
by side. Concretely, it involves designing the steps or sequences of the process and
selecting/developing/adapting risk assessment and management tools.
More specific, within the environment and health arena there is limited experience
with these new concepts of integrated assessments (Briggs, 2008). Therefore case
studies on various environment and health issues were performed to evaluate current
integrated risk assessment practices, multi-level precautionary approaches and
communication of complex risks. Different tools as Delphi, scenario workshop, etc.
were used to analyse the issues at stake.
The development of an integrated approach in risk assessment requires
cooperation across policy domains and hierarchical structures. In the field of air
pollution a science-policy workshop confirmed that in the domain of air quality
policy, public servants communicate well with researchers from scientific institutions.
The protagonists in Flemish air quality policy have a common scientific background
and are technical experts. This observation puts into question a common discourse
postulating that there is a „communication problem' or 'gap' between 'researchers'
and 'policymakers'. This discourse as a description of a state of affairs does not suit
empirical reality, and needs to be reformulated in more precise terms. If there is a
communication gap, it is not to be situated between public administration
(„policymakers‟) and researchers („scientists‟), who share the same overall concerns,
but between public administrations and ministerial cabinets.
The analysis of risks related to electromagnetic fields (EMF), showed how the
precautionary principle is reinterpreted differently at each different political level
(European, Belgian, Wallonia, Regional) in order to better integrate the local
institutional and political environment. In most cases, when this principle is put at the
foreground, its use is mainly symbolic and incantatory. When implementing policies it
does not seem to respond to some precautionary approach, but rather to the
institutional dynamics which characterise each political level. We observed the
reinforcement of the European role in the field of health & environment: in attempts to
underline institutional cooperation at the federal level in Belgium and to reinforce the
authority of the regional government on the Walloon territory. From this case study it
is learnt that the new deliberative spaces to be developed should not be embedded
in the dominant institutional structures. A structure such as promoted in the wake of
"Technology assessment" (Delvenne, 2011) is capable of conciliating production of
knowledge and uncertainties (the science pole) with the plurality of social perceptions
(the civic pole) and the specific dynamics of the relevant polity (the political pole).
New deliberative spaces should be capable of developing the basis for integrated
and comparative approach for emerging issues with due attention to its political and
institutional dimensions, while maintaining enough distance with the dominant frames
and logics. Recently the Flemish administration on Environment, Nature & Energy
proposed a note (framework) to deal with uncertain risks. The proposed framework
will be tested in a pilot study for potential risks related to non-ionising electromagnetic
radiation, and can later be extended to other risks.
In a case study on Bisphenol-A (BPA), multi-level political communication was
analysed. Political decisions were taken without socio-technical debate (Callon,
1986). The BPA issue was not very high on the social or political agenda in Belgium.
There was no crisis, no strong pressure form NGO's. The question was managed first
by the European authorities (EFSA & European Commission). The Belgian
institutions were waiting for the European position. As the political decision did not
encounter a strong contestation from the industry, this was an easy step for the
political authorities, in Belgium and at the European level, to symbolically address the
issue while avoiding considering the real uncertainties. When the decision was taken
to ban the use of BPA in polycarbonate baby bottles, it was a political decision taken
with the support of the scientific bodies (Superior Health Council) but without being
embedded in any social debate (what about risks related to the chemicals which may
substitute BPA?). It meant that the whole of uncertainties on the extent of risks
related to the multiple exposures to different endocrine disruptors could not be put at
the foreground in a public socio-technical debate.
These case studies on the interplay with science, policy and stakeholders, on the
framing of an environmental health policy problem, and on the management of
complex risks (air pollution, EMF, BPA) contribute to recommendations on their
governance. The question then becomes: is it possible to organize a precautionary
decision making process to deal with different legitimate frames and the necessary
trade-offs when considering policy alternatives? Concretely it is advised to pay
attention to the role of a focal point in the process, potentially taken up by public
administrations, to the co-production, availability and organisation of knowledge and
information, and to the progress of the process. Above all it is important to set up a
platform for issue framing and problem definition to highlight key factors that need to
be assessed:
- Examine the policy and stakeholder learning network related to a specific
issue, with special attention to policy domains that are affected by or are
affecting the environmental and health issue at stake. Specify who has
interests in the issue and who should be involved. An efficient stakeholder
network analysis is important for the further progress of the DMP. define who
is allowed to take part in the process across different policy areas
- Examine the information database before setting up a more integrative
approach, both from a scientific (including uncertainties) and technical
(alternatives, CBA analysis) point of view and from the side of concerned
stakeholders. Policy makers acquire information from different inputs from
science, stakeholder organisations, socio-economic actors and the public at
large, as well as from administrations and staff members, and are conscious of
the structural and constitutional constraints. It is clear that a balanced process
of information gathering that is transparent, contributes to better decision
- Initiate and manage the process: find out who will carry the process, set up a
series of interactions between administrations, between administrations and
cabinets, between administrations and research, between administrations,
research and the public. Usable and meaningful available information on the
issue should be communicated clearly to all stakeholders. It is innovative to
look at how stakeholders increase their knowledge through different inputs
and through communication, information and interaction.
- Iterate where needed: information gained in one dialogue should be fed back
into other fora. An equilibrium between acceptability – tolerability – uncertainty
should be established.
- Move forward / conclude. In the total policy cycle the conclusion or decision
may be revised, when (1) monitoring of implementation and following
evaluation is considered as negative; (2) new knowledge / experience / issues
have to take into account.
- Ensure an efficient and socially appropriate allocation of the resources and an
adequate management of residual risks.
Last but not least, in a precautionary approach it is also required, to contribute to the
public trust in the decision making process and to construct social acceptance of the
final decision. Generally, a precautionary decision making process should be
considered as a double-pronged learning dynamics: on one side, the authorities are
required to better take into account the multiple frames which abound in our pluralist
societies when organising the conditions of political trade-offs for the governance of
risks. On the other side, the citizens should have the possibility to, not only
understand, but also adopt the decision and its consequences and to conform to its
implementation. It is important to develop specific communication processes to
successfully implement these two faces of a precautionary approach in the
governance of risks, while ensuring this dual learning process. New procedures are
currently developed which could support the communication dynamics for promoting
multiple frames and comparing openly different alternatives (e.g. open process
workshop; atelier scenarios; Delphi).
Politique Scientifique Fédérale (Belgique) = Belgian Federal Science Policy
Project SD/TA/10A : An Integrated Assessment Frame as Science Policy Interface for Decisions on (Environment-Related) Risks “SCoPE” SSD-Science for a Sustainable Development – Transversal Actions 5
Researchers ; Professionals
R. Torfs, J. Buekers, K. Stassen, C. Zwetkoff, C. Fallon, G. Joris,
S. Van Haeren, B. Cornelis, K. Hendrickx. Handling complex risks, issues in the domain of
environment and health “Scope” - Final Report. Brussels : Belgian Science Policy 2011 –
87 p. (Research Programme Science for a Sustainable Development)

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