Since the turn of the century, the European Union has striven to improve its decision-making by requesting a detailed impact analysis before taking new major policy initiatives.
Impact assessments (IAs) are now routinely conducted to predict the likely consequence of EU legislation on citizens and the wider economy, in a detailed cost-benefit analysis.
The European Commission is currently reviewing the guidelines on how it carries out IAs and has committed to publish new ones by the end of 2014.
The debate may sound technical but could have far-reaching consequences: an IA may lead the Commission to make substantial amendments to a legislative proposal, scale it down or even drop it altogether. Products and technologies may be approved or rejected as a result, leading to new growth opportunities or job losses depending on the outcome.
And some questions can easily turn explosive when science is thrown into the mix – on topics such as climate change, renewable energies, GMO authorisation, shale gas or the regulation of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
On each of these, the Commission seeks advice from the scientific community to determine what form of regulation is needed, if any, applying the precautionary principle.
It is therefore no surprise that IAs have attracted attention and sometimes, criticism.
Some see them as just another layer of bureaucracy and a further impediment to faster and leaner law-making. Others have been suspicious of the IA process, saying the “evidence” presented there is prone to political manipulations and influence from a wide variety of interest groups, including powerful business lobbies.
Even the scientists feel they are being manipulated by politicians seeking to push specific policy initiatives.
A big challenge for the incoming European Commission will be to disconnect its evidence gathering processes from the “political imperative” that’s driving policy proposals, said Anne Glover, the EU’s chief scientific advisor.