Where knowledge is insufficient, the results of specific research programmes can become the basis for appropriate policies in the future. When several states have a common need for research, cost advantages accrue from undertaking it at the regional level, provided the results are effectively disseminated.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities.
At the Second European Conference on Environment and Health, held in Helsinki in 1994, European ministers of health and the environment identified seven broad priority areas where action was required to reduce the impact of environmental degradation on health. These ranged from contaminated food and water to ambient and indoor air pollution, the working environment, urban health, and death and injuries from accidents. The resulting Helsinki Declaration on Action for Environment and Health in Europe recommended that the European Science Foundation (ESF) should work with the World Health Organization's Regional Office for Europe (WHO-EURO) and the European Commission (EC) to identify future research needs in these areas.
In line with the recommendations of the Helsinki Declaration, ESF launched a programme of scientific consultation. The programme was developed in close liaison with WHO-EURO and EC. Over 150 scientists from some 20 European countries and a wide range of disciplines, from neurobiology and toxicology to epidemiology and the social sciences, worked together in a series of workshops and field studies on pinpointing areas where further research is required to support the Declaration's goals. At a multidisciplinary ESF update meeting in June 1998, 45 leading scientists examined more than 80 detailed recommendations for further research and drew up a shortlist of 24 priority research issues. These science-driven recommendations were subsequently discussed at a joint EC/ESF/WHO-EURO "consensus conference", attended by policy-makers, scientists, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations and industry in October 1998. That conference emphasized the need to understand more fully the relative risks and impacts of environmental hazards. Without this knowledge, there is a danger that legislation could misdirect resources towards problems that have little real effect on health.