Evidence Matters

01 November 2017 - By: Esther Odekunle

Evidence Matters

Evidence Matters
Esther Odekunle speaking with Jan Huitema (MEP). Photo:Frank Pittoors


By Esther Odekunle

“Before you make up your mind, open it.” These words from Mairead McGuinness (MEP) exemplify the best way citizens and politicians can work together to ensure evidence is used in policy making.

On 21st June 2017 citizens travelled from all over Europe to the European Parliament, Brussels for the Evidence Matters EU event organised by Sense about Science1. They spoke on why evidence matters to them by sharing their engaging, thought-provoking stories. One ‘capturing’ element was that each citizen spoke in their preferred language, providing a real authenticity to the stories.

One story in particular was from Tobias Goecke, a food waste campaigner from Germany who runs the Real Junk Food Project2 in Berlin. The mission of this project is to reduce food waste by turning surplus fruit and vegetables that would normally be thrown away into desserts and healthy meals for the local community. A shocking piece of evidence from his story is that according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization3, almost a third of globally produced food is either lost or wasted; that is approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of food per year. His take home message was that such evidence-based data should be used to present strong arguments to those in positions of authority who can influence policy.

Eline Vedder, a dairy farmer from the Netherlands also shared her story on why evidence matters, particularly in her profession. Crops need a certain amount of nutrients which can (in part) be obtained from a farmer’s stock of manure, with the remaining nutrient demand met from mineral fertilizers. Agricultural legislation also allows nutrients extracted from human excrement to be used, while nutrients extracted from cattle’s manure (presumably on the same land) cannot be used. This means farmers export manure and import mineral fertilizers, a seemingly inefficient practice when all the necessary resources are available on the same land. Eline concluded by saying scientific evidence should be used when making agricultural policies so that farmers can be more efficient. The stories from other citizens, ranging from biologists, mothers and even a hunter, shared one common powerful theme: decisions that affect the lives of many need to be made based on evidence rather than being influenced by emotion and belief. A video of the event including more stories can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQtKmTZ4fOo

In response, Carlos Moedas and Frans Timmermans spoke to the citizens on behalf of the commission along with six ministers of the European Parliament (MEPs): Marco Affronte, Julie Girling, Jan Huitema, Ricardo Serrão Santos, Eva Kaili and Mairead McGuinness. The general consensus from the panel was that evidence is essential in policy making, with Carlos Moedas saying; “I’m very happy that you’ve come because you are telling me exactly what I’m fighting everyday, telling my colleagues that they cannot take any decision without that evidence.” There were however disagreements (or healthy debate!) among the panel members on how evidence should be embedded into policy. Marco Affronte suggested that where scientific data do not “permit the complete evaluation of the risk”, the precautionary principle should be applied. This principle could involve the banning of certain products from the market.

Evidence matters
The director of Sense about Science EU, Sofie Vanthournout (left) along with the panel of MEPs; Marco Affronte, Ricardo Serrão Santos and Mairead McGuinness (left to right). Photo: Frank Pittoors


Julie Girling, on the other hand, was of the view that many decisions are not binary or simplistic but rather involve grey areas due to conflicting evidence. She asserted that the real issue is trying to combat conformational bias, that is, the tendency to interpret and favour evidence in a way that confirms your own pre-existing bias/beliefs. As an example of this Julie asked how many of the citizens drink coffee. A substantial number of hands (including my own) were raised. She then presented us with some interesting evidence: “You’d be interested to know that caffeine in coffee according to IARC could be carcinogenic.” She paused. Then she asked, ‘How many of you are going to stop drinking [coffee]?” We all looked around. Hardly anyone raised their hands. Even after hearing that piece of evidence, we weren’t quite ready to give up our source of energy, comfort and joy! However, Julie pointed out that if there were the tiniest piece of evidence that a chemical used in agriculture could be harmful, many of us would be calling for it to be banned. There doesn’t seem to be a one size fits all solution, but weighing up the available evidence and trying to eliminate confirmational bias could make a big difference.

Due to time constraints the event wrapped up after an hour, however the conversation between citizens and MEPs continued informally afterwards. Everyone was engaged and motivated to discuss their views. I got the chance to talk to Ingeborg Senneset, a journalist from Norway who had shared her story on the importance of evidence in the media, amidst the ever growing stockpile of fake news or ‘alternative facts’. I asked for her comments on the event as a whole to which she replied: “I appreciated the good conversations on difficult topics, and found this much more important than simply agreeing with each other.”

I also caught up with Jan Huitema (MEP) from the panel. As a partner in a family-owned dairy farm with an MSc in Animal Production, Jan is fully aware of how public perceptions can be skewed when people are not presented with accurate evidence. This strongly motivated him to go into politics and, “naively” to him, but optimistically to me, try to change the world! Speaking on his focus as a politician, Jan said, “It’s tremendously important that we are transparent and have good links with our voters.”

Sense about Science also shares this sentiment; not only through organising this event, but announcing a citizen-led review to monitor the ‘best and worst’ of MEPs responses over the next year. This will hopefully encourage MEPs to engage more with citizens and vice versa.

If evidence matters to you and you want to find out more, go to their website or contact Sense about Science about how to get involved.

1. senseaboutscience.org

2. Real Junk Food Berlin: https://realjunkfoodberlin.wordpress.com/about/

3. UN Food and Agriculture Organization: http://www.fao.org/home/en/



Category: Cell Biology
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Esther

Esther Odekunle

Esther is a PhD student funded by SEB, investigating the expression and physiological roles of a novel vasopressin/oxytocin-type neuropeptide in the starfish Asterias rubens at Queen Mary University of London