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Regulators on the spot

The European Parliament takes the initiative

One of the greatest challenges, and opportunities, for Europe’s researchers is to help the EU build a set of regulatory agencies that both protect the public and serve as global models of transparency, flexibility and fairness.

The European Medicines Agency, European Food Safety Authority, European Chemicals Agency and European Aviation Safety Agency each carry responsibility for balancing public health and safety on the one hand, and industry’s desire to rapidly introduce and sell products and technologies on the other. And it seems that in some respects they are falling short.

Most EU regulatory bodies have taken on roles that were previously performed, with varying degrees of competence, by national governments. Yet their operation at the European level is not yet subject to sufficient political and media scrutiny.

There are exceptions. Last October, the European Court of Auditors criticised each of the four agencies mentioned above for failing to deal adequately with conflicts of interest among the scientists and engineers who assist them in their functions. The auditors’ concerns have been echoed and amplified by MEPs from various parties, who have sought to turn a much-needed spotlight onto the extensive, but opaque, processes that these regulators use to set and implement their rules and regulations.

Such scrutiny is essential to a functioning democracy, and is welcome and necessary to counteract the phenomenon of ‘regulatory capture’. Here, any business subject to regulation tends to stealthily acquire control of its own regulator—the most famous example, perhaps, being the capture of financial regulators by the banks before the 2008 economic crisis.

Regulatory capture can also occur through such unsubtle developments as the departure of regulators to take up positions as staff or consultants in companies they were regulating. But it is usually more subtle, with a range of social and professional interactions leading to a confluence of interests between a weak regulator and the business it is regulating.

Europe can and must do better. The most robust regulatory bodies, such as the US Food and Drug Administration, have developed a great deal of public trust over many decades through an iterative process of press and Congressional oversight, the development of robust and transparent processes, and trustworthy outcomes. The fact that the FDA’s prestige has declined somewhat of late—largely as a result of efforts by the administration of George W Bush to weaken it—doesn’t alter this overall trajectory.

Regulatory agencies need to be permanently wedded to sound science, through extensive, transparent relationships with outside researchers, who reflect the different perspectives that may be held on any given regulatory problem. It is the duty of legislators and the press to scrutinise these relationships as thoroughly as possible to ensure the fairness and balance that brings public trust.

If that scrutiny is sufficiently unsparing, Europe will build a set of regulators that are the envy of others.