Background: Environmental health impact assessments often have to deal with substantial uncertainties. Typically, the knowledge-base is limited with incomplete, or inconsistent evidence and missing or ambiguous data. Consulting experts can help to identify and address uncertainties.
Methods: Formal expert elicitation is a structured approach to systematically consult experts on uncertain issues. It is most often used to quantify ranges for poorly known parameters, but may also be useful to further develop qualitative issues such as definitions, assumptions or conceptual (causal) models. A thorough preparation and systematic design and execution of an expert elicitation process may increase the validity of its outcomes and transparency and trustworthiness of its conclusions. Various expert elicitation protocols and methods exist. However, these are often not universally applicable, and need customization to suite the needs of a specific study. In this paper, we set out to develop a widely applicable method for the use of expert elicitation in environmental health impact assessment.
Results: We present a practical yet flexible seven step procedure towards organising expert elicitation in the context of environmental health impact assessment, based on existing protocols. We describe how customization for specific applications is always necessary. In particular, three issues affect the choice of methods for a particular application: the types of uncertainties considered, the intended use of the elicited information, and the available resources. We outline how these three considerations guide choices regarding the design and execution of expert elicitation. We present signposts to sources where the issues are discussed in more depth to give the newcomer the insights needed to make the protocol work. The seven step procedure is illustrated using examples from earlier published elicitations in the field of environmental health research.
Conclusions: We conclude that, despite some known criticism on its validity, formal expert elicitation can support environmental health research in various ways. Its main purpose is to provide a temporary summary of the limited available knowledge, which can serve as a provisional basis for policy until further research has been carried out.