880   Individual paper

How do the EU and US communicate about policy issues that rely on science?

Author: Marlit Hayslett
University of Virginia, United States

Imagine hearing on the news that a long-trusted food product was suddenly found to be harmful: Would you serve it to your family and friends? It’s a tough question. As seekers and creators of knowledge, we should ask “where is the scientific evidence that this food is now harmful?” However, what if there is no research? Or if the available research is genuinely disputed? In this situation, it’s often better to be safe than risk harming our loved ones. This reticence is known at a societal level as the precautionary principle: Better safe than sorry. Policymakers may employ this principle when they are unsure about the effects of a product. To counter precaution, policymakers may turn to science as a way to evaluate the risk. 

With more than $600B in annual trade, the European Union and the United States are the world’s largest trading partners.  The EU and the US vary in their levels of (pre)caution towards products that depend on science to help inform public policy. Why is this important? If one jurisdiction is more cautious, it may complicate and even impede trade relations thereby jeopardizing businesses and jobs. 

The current study contributes to the science communication literature by comparing how the science was communicated in EU and US policy documents on three topics that rely on science for decision-making: Cyclamate, an artificial sweetener, banned in the US but available in the EU; hormone-treated beef, available in the US but banned in the EU; and bisphenol A banned in baby bottles in both the EU and the US. More than 100 policy documents from 1969 to 2018 were evaluated for statements of risk and how the ultimate policy was shaped by the scientific research, among other attributes. Preliminary findings suggest important differences in the US and EU policy-making processes.

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