Exclusive interview

EFSA’s Bernhard Url: Science should reserve one private room for open debate

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Since taking the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) throne last summer, Dr Bernhard Url has become something of a pin-up boy for the so-called new ‘open EFSA’. But how far exactly is this new executive director willing to take his vision of transparency?

We spoke with Url in Milan last week at EFSA’s second scientific conference and asked: Should the world be able to peer into every corner of the assessment process? And will EFSA follow in the foot steps of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) by publishing clinical trials data?

In July EFSA lost a four-year court battle with NGO Pan Europe. The anti-pesticides campaigners wanted to know which experts made which changes to an opinion.

EFSA argued this would violate personal data protection and threaten the integrity of the experts.

But after a series of appeals the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that society had the right to know who contributed what to its opinions.

For Url though this decision could have serious implications for the scientific process.

“In a scientific process – which is what we call organised scepticism – the scientist must have the freedom to ask stupid questions that are out of the box, to challenge their peers, trial and error. That’s the way science works.

“And there I’m not convinced we help the process of finding the nearest approximation of truth by putting every single question for the whole life of a scientist on Youtube,” he told us.

“I think that science needs parts of the process in a closed room and then many steps of the process in an open atmosphere. But I think it also needs a protected room where they can speak completely freely, openly and challenge each other. That’s also science.”

Another key test on openness will come as its pharmaceutical counterpart, EMA, commits to publishing clinical trial data attached to new applications for drugs.

Speaking at the conference, EMA senior medical officer Hans-Georg Eichler said this move would likely put pressure on EFSA to follow suit.

Url said he thought this was positive – and EFSA would be taking steps in this direction.

However, this would not come without hurdles. The EMA faced law suits from various disgruntled pharma firms concerned about giving unfair commercial advantages to their competitors.

These were dropped though as the pharma industry realised the “train had left the station” and open data was the future, Eichler said.

This legal history meant EFSA would have to approach the process with prudence, Url said.

EFSA is developing a roadmap on its ambitions for big and open data, a post-consultation draft of which is due in December. Final adoption of the strategy document and its implementation plan is due spring 2016.  

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