June 15, 2015, by Sarah Hartley

Expertise and the changing nature of universities: Reflections on a recent European Ombudsman ruling

ae43ee47223f276ed5c5c2188d9649a3A recent ruling by the European Ombudsman highlights the effects of the changing nature of the university on the use of expertise in science governance and policy-making more broadly. The Ombudsman recognises universities are developing closer ties with industry and becoming commercial entities in research production and commercialisation of results. She argues that traditional notions of universities as ‘necessarily and automatically “independent” must evolve to reflect these developing deeper relationships between academia and business’. The ruling offers a lesson for universities as they become increasingly commercial entities and has repercussions for the way we think about experts and the institutional structures in place to protect policy-making from bias.

In a paper published this month in the Journal of European Public Policy (title: Policy masquerading as science: an examination of non-state actor involvement in European risk assessment policy for genetically-modified animals), I highlight a reason why the Ombudsman’s ruling is important: that experts are moving beyond influencing policy to actually making policy, (also, see a recent edited volume by Ambrus et al 2014, particularly chapters by Busuioc and Lawrence). When experts are so influential in policy-making, their independence from conflicts of interest becomes critical.

EFSA’s development of a risk assessment policy for GM animals

 In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) announced the Guidance on the Environmental Risk Assessment of Genetically Modified Animals (the ‘Guidance’). This Guidance is a risk assessment policy, establishing the risk assessment framework for releases of genetically modified (GM) animals into the environment. As such, it addresses the scope of future risk assessments (the kinds of impacts deemed to be within / outside the scope), what counts as evidence and how much is needed, the interpretation of evidence, how uncertainties should be addressed, and how precaution should be applied (See Millstone et al. 2004 for more information on risk assessment policy).

Although no GM animal has been approved for release in Europe, experts estimate GM insects will be the first GM animals to be placed on the European market. Indeed, in January 2013, the British company, Oxitec Ltd. submitted an application to release the GM Olive Fly for experimental release in Europe.

EFSA is an independent regulatory agency with a statutory obligation to provide scientific advice to the European Commission on food safety matters and take responsibility for the risk assessment and communication functions of risk analysis. EFSA relies heavily on advice from independent scientific experts through its Panels and Working Groups and has an obligation to ensure experts are, and are also seen to be, independent of any third party influence that might unduly affect their ability and willingness to give expert advice.

In this case, EFSA employed experts through its GMO Panel and in three Working Groups (GM Insects, GM fish and GM mammals and birds). These experts came from universities in Europe and North America and determined the Guidance by identifying and defining the issues, reviewing the scientific quality of the data, and results of a public consultation and drafting the Guidance.

The complaint about conflict of interest

 The independence of one particular expert on EFSA’s GM Insects Working Group was challenged by Genewatch, a British NGO with expertise in emerging technologies. In March 2013, Genewatch lodged a complaint with the European Ombudsman alleging EFSA had failed to address a conflict of interest when is invited a University of Oxford professor to join the GM Insects Working Group. The University owns 12.5% of Oxitec’s shares and therefore stands to benefit from the commercialisation of GM insects.

EFSA argued that “employment by a university has never been considered a conflict of interest at EFSA“. And that “the rationale for this choice is obvious: such an approach would disqualify precisely those full time researchers and professors who are least directly engaged in commercial activities“. Indeed, universities supply the vast majority of experts to the huge number of committees, panels, working groups and other organisations that need expert advice in the increasing demand for evidence-based policy-making.

The Ombudsman’s ruling

The European Ombudsman disagreed with EFSA’s position on the basis that it reflects a ‘traditional, and now outdated, understanding of universities’, stating:

The view that academia, academic institutions and individual academics are independent of business must be based not on any preconceived assumptions.

The Ombudsman ruled that EFSA should have requested details about the relationship between the University of Oxford and Oxitec and the mechanisms in place, such as “Chinese walls” (internal information barriers to prevent information and communication flows), to avoid a conflict of interest. She also noted that EFSA had failed to take into account the changing nature of the university in its conflicts of interest policy and suggested EFSA revise its policies to reflect the increasing commercial nature of the university.

Expertise and the changing nature of universities

Since the food scares in Europe in the 1990s, the independence of expert advice and the appearance of independence of such advice have been seen as vital for building public trust in the EU. Indeed, the Ombudsman notes: “If such trust is undermined, EFSA, and the EU, will cease to be legitimate in the eyes of citizens”. However, the changing nature of the university presents a challenge for European policy-makers and regulatory agencies, such as EFSA, who rely heavily on the advice of experts from universities, particularly when increasing demands are made for evidence-based policy. The ruling suggests universities need to think carefully about the institutional structures in place to protect their academic staff from economic activities.


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