It is a report that some would have liked to be discreet. However, it made a lot of noise. This Friday, March 10, the National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety (ANSES) published the results of a vast internal reflection on the credibility of its scientific expertise, with the general public. . His conclusions: public opinion is beginning to doubt the relevance of his opinions.
Published without announcement, the report produced by a committee of independent experts was unearthed by the newspaper The world, and since then has not ceased to be talked about. In a rare exercise in self-criticism, the scientific council of the French institution concludes that its credibility has been threatened in recent years, in particular because of certain opinions, which appeared to be far from the realities of science.
“The gap between science and expertise is one of the most important factors in the erosion of credibility and ANSES does not always manage to reduce this tension”, noted in particular the experts, some thirty scientists, most of them outside the organization responsible for protecting “human and animal health”. The authors of the report thus call on the agency to reform its procedures in depth, to prevent the general public from becoming too skeptical of its future opinions.
In recent years, “the expert opinions produced by ANSES (and in some cases the experts who contributed to them) have been disputed, even violently attacked, directly or through the media”, note the authors of the report, who conducted a series of hearings internally, as well as in research centers and at the National Assembly. Their analysis focused on three past case studies: glyphosate, neonicotinoids and SDHI fungicides.
“These tensions are not unique to ANSES”
The report documents, among other things, the divergence of the conclusions of the agency, also called “French pesticide policeman”, with other scientific institutions. For example, on the issue of glyphosate, ANSES assesses the product used to weed much less dangerous than the National Institute for Health and Biomedical Research (Inserm), or the International Center for Research on Cancer (IARC), two reference institutions in the field.
What throw the stone at the organization? Not really, according to Pierre-Benoit Joly, director of the working group, created in the fall of 2020, and also president of the Inrae Occitanie-Toulouse center. “What we say in the report is that these tensions are not specific to ANSES. This would apply to other institutions. There are inevitably tensions, that is to say a form of desynchronization, between so-called academic science, therefore research, and regulatory science, which issues protocols, that of ANSES”, explains the scientist to L’Express.
And to take the example of neonicotinoids: “At the beginning of the 2000s, some scientists realized that the minimum doses authorized for these products no longer held, because there was a cocktail effect. But, to realize this effect , it is necessary to invent protocols directly on the bees… which was not in force in the field of regulatory science, which used other protocols. Hence the importance of forging important links between the organizations of research and the organizations issuing opinions and regulations”, specifies Pierre-Benoit Joly.
Another factor to explain the discrepancy between academic opinions and those of ANSES: the urgency of issuing certain opinions, which “may lead to work being carried out that does not fully comply with the rules […] collective expertise”. Finally, the committee of experts stresses that it is difficult for these institutions to reconcile the production of opinions and the implementation of management measures.
Still, according to the committee of experts, ANSES must act quickly. “This situation could, if it is not carefully managed, threaten the credibility of the agency, in particular for the management of pesticide files and for the scheduled transfer of the evaluation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), another very sensitive file. relating in particular to regulated products”, adds the working group.
Better separate the different branches of ANSES
At the end of the work, the Scientific Board mandated by ANSES, made up of around thirty independent scientists, made four groups of recommendations: improve procedures, better clarify the decision-making process, intensify interactions with stakeholders and strengthen the separation of risk assessment and risk management within ANSES, to prevent those who measure the situation from also being those who remedy it.
Among the recommendations, there is in particular the fact of “promoting scientific diversity in the work, “using as much as necessary the format of hearings when specific expertise is required”, ensuring the regular renewal of the pool of experts, refining the treatment of links of interest or to strengthen the links between ANSES and research organisations.