The new chair of the Advisory Research Committee of the UK Food Standards Agency has said that guaranteeing the highest quality of research will be his main priority.
Professor Michael Lean, professor of human nutrition at the University of Glasgow, was appointed chairman of the ARC this week. "It is very important that the processes to guarantee research standards follow a set of guidelines," he said.
"Very important policy decisions are being made by the FSA and it is in the public interest that that these are based on top quality research."
Professor Lean and 11 other newly-appointed members of the independent committee will advise the FSA Board on its research and survey programmes and develop the Agency's work in this area.
Another of the committee's aims will be to ensure the Agency is in a position to anticipate scientific issues of importance, including health issues in relation to food safety in its broader sense, Professor Lean said.
Understanding the capacity for research - and what it might conclude - could also assist the FSA in detecting aspects of food safety that haven't previously been thought about, he suggested. "If you have the technology that can identify or quantify things that might become health issues in the future, then it makes sense to try to map out the ground ahead."
For example, it only became possible to do certain types of research on BSE and spongiform encephalopathy with the advent of certain very high-powered technology, he suggested. "Perhaps some of the outcomes of that research could have been managed better if people had been able to think about it in advance, and if there had been greater openness and discussion of the research capacity that was leading in this direction."
Another area that that may be considered by the ACR is how the Agency communicates its messages and information to the public. "If research is funded out of the public purse it needs to demonstrate value for money. And very often its impact depends ultimately on how information is delivered to the consumer or to the industry that is providing for that consumer," Professor Lean said.
"One of the things that hasn't had a lot of emphasis in the past is how communications should be phrased and formed when the public is being asked to consider complicated balances of risk and probability, and which modes of communication are best for conveying sensitive and multifactoral health issues.
"If you are aiming to achieve behavioural change, for example getting people to keep their fridges at a lower temperature, you can provide people with information about it and achieve high levels of awareness. But have you actually changed the way they run their fridges? I think one of the issues we may need to tackle is how you can go beyond the tracking stages of analysing communication, to ask: 'Well, has that really impacted on people's health behaviours?'"
The ARC, which meets for the first time on 30 April, will endeavour to conduct its business in the spirit of the FSA's tenets of openness and transparency, Professor Lean added. " "The committee has no agenda other than wanting the UK to become a healthier, better informed, better served country. That being the case, I would welcome entirely an approach that will make the work of the FSA more open," he said.
"In the past, the public has sometime been presented with policies whose origins aren't absolutely clear - even if they are based on solid facts. One thing this research advisory committee will want to do will be to ensure that the public has access to the process whereby decisions are made."
The minutes of the meetings will, for example, be made available via the Internet, while policy decisions or material decisions coming out of the committee will be made in the public forum and discussed with the people who are involved. When particular topics or concerns are being addressed there may be an opportunity for having workshops with stakeholders, scientists, consumers and others in conjunction with a meeting of the committee, Professor Lean added.