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Canadian Science Policy Centre | Panel 110 - Should regulators define their risk tolerances?: A debate

Panel 110 - Should regulators define their risk tolerances?: A debate

Conference Day: 
Day 1 - November 7th 2018
Takeaways and recommendations: 

Should regulators define their risk tolerances? A debate

Organized by: Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Alyssa Daku


Against setting risk tolerance standards:

  • Pierre Bilodeau, Executive Director, Plant Health Science Directorate, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

  • Greg Paoli, Principal Risk Scientist, COO, Risk Sciences International

In favour of setting risk tolerance standards:

  • Liane Sauer, Director General, Strategic Planning, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission

  • Robert Wiersma, Manager, Public Safety Risk Management, Technical Standards and Safety Authority, Ontario

Moderator: Alyssa Daku, Chief Data and Risk Executive, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Takeaways and recommendations

  • Although setting risk tolerances is widely regarded as an essential and mandatory policy function for regulatory institutions, the question around whether regulators can and must set risk tolerance levels is a contentious and largely debated issue.

  • Recognizing that zero risk is not achievable (practical or resource wise), regulators must distinguish levels of risk that cannot be tolerated from those that can be, and in doing so, make value-driven decisions that offer the greatest benefit in protecting the public and in the most cost effective manner.

  • However, for all the reasons that advocate the benefits of establishing risk tolerance levels, there are just as many reasons demonstrating their limitations on the regulator, the extent to which they help mitigate the risk, and potential implications on trade to name a few.

  • Regulators should approach the subject of risk tolerance on a case by case basis that considers the societal risks and benefits, legal and policy requirements, ethical considerations and economic ramifications.


Defining risk

  • Concrete, measurable risk tolerances provide a basis for useful comparisons of risks and policy options which serve all segments of society, and helps society make better, more informed, choices.

  • Such assessments can also be offered to the public and create a citizenry better informed of the risks they face in their lives.

  • People typically make their own intuitive judgements about the levels of risk they face, something that is made more explicit when public bodies offer their own assessments to support or deny those judgements.

  • By creating a greater awareness of the issues and ethical value judgements regulators make about risk, the decision-making process that leads to laws or regulations will become more transparent, which may in turn contribute to public acceptance of restrictions on behaviour. If the public understands how these tensions and value judgements are resolved, they are more likely to buy into any decision.

  • However, decisions around risk can vary widely, as can their definition, such as the difference between road accident rates based on the number of people travelling versus the number of kilometres travelled.

  • Despite attempts to foster transparency, established risk tolerance levels may be unclear or unacceptable to many observers, which can work against efforts to gain public trust.


Challenges of setting risk tolerance

  • In spite of a tacit assumption that universal standards are the only acceptable way to manage risk, but we have been able to succeed and progress as a society in the absence of such standards

  • Different cases call for different approaches to defining the management of a problem; for example, with invasive species there may be a demand that no level of pest presence is acceptable, which puts regulators in the difficult position of trying to determine if these pests are in fact absent or they have not yet been found; in contrast, studies of diseases in plants or livestock can be referred to established health guidelines, which can serve as a basis for how serious a risk a disease poses to health.


Communicating risk tolerance

  • Transparency can also depends on the application of scientific evidence to justify a particular standard, which leaves open the possibility that such evidence could evolve over time, necessitate changes to such standards, and possibly undermine public confidence in the organization that set the original standard.

  • Risk tolerances also reflect an assessment of what is technically possible to achieve; an industrial standard that can be attained by 100 per cent of firms may be too low to achieve the desired level of public safety, but raising it may lead to other practical problems that tax regulatory resources.

  • The distinction between allowing something and preventing may be based on a subtle negotiation between regulators and society to enable factors such as cultural practices or historical usage to determine the level of risk associated with particular products, such as natural health remedies that might otherwise been deemed unsafe.