‘Watchdogs of the system‘: the EU’s new scientific advisory panel explained

UK-EU relations figured in the decision to create a seven-member science panel in Brussels. EC’s director-general details the hows and whys of the new system.

Robert-Jan Smits

BRUSSELS - Politics is a strange business. You might not think that the seemingly academic issue of who provides scientific advice to the European Commission would have anything to do with British politics – but it does.

On May 13, the EC announced a new Scientific Advice Mechanism – a seven-member panel of experts to oversee the process of how the Commission gets scientific advice on controversial issues like shale gas or GMOs. The announcement followed months of noisy complaints, by UK politicians and scientists, about the way the issue was being handled in Brussels – and it risked becoming a new source of friction in a UK-EU relationship already strained by British political pressure to leave the EU.

“There was quite some fuss, notably in the UK; it was quite a surprise,” observed Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General for Research and Innovation, in an interview with Science|Business. The new system is intended to make the whole process of providing scientific advice more transparent and of higher quality; “we didn’t do it for the British.” But certainly, he said: “We wanted to put an end to the debate” with the UK over the issue.

The controversy started last year, when Anne Glover, a UK microbiologist who had served since 2012 as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Commission, was not reappointed to her position. She had come under fire by environmental activists for being too friendly with industry – which she denied; but Juncker’s decision to let her go sparked howls of protest from leading UK scientists and politicians. The issue wasn’t just British jingoism; it reflected a fundamental dispute over the best way to feed scientific evidence into policy making. The UK system has a central, powerful Chief Scientific Advisor to coordinate the input. Other EU members – most notably Germany – use academies of science and ad hoc committees, distributing the responsibility. Juncker instructed Carlos Moedas, EU Research Commissioner, to devise a better, post-Glover system for the Commission.

The conclusion of the Commission’s reflections, said Smits: “Every country has a different practice. There is no best practice, but there is good practice.”

And that’s what the new Scientific Advice Mechanism, or SAM, is intended to create in Brussels. The system was announced May 13 – two months earlier than expected – at Juncker’s request. The occasion of a long-planned Brussels lunch that day with a group of Nobel Prize winners – including Royal Society President Sir Paul Nurse – provided a convenient moment; and Commission staff scrambled in the last few days to prepare the announcements.

And the reaction from the British government so far? Polite acceptance. Said Sir Mark Walport, the UK Chief Scientific Advisor and previously a vocal critic: “‘It is important to recognise that there is no single mechanism for the provision of scientific advice and I welcome that the Commission is seeking high level, independent scientific advice. I look forward to its effective implementation.”

In the interview, Smits provided more details on how the system will work.

Q. What is the Mechanism?

A. According to Smits, it will be a complete system of advice, supported by Commission staff and connected to all the academies of science of the member-states. It is based on matching demand (Commission services) with supply (the national academies and learned societies). It will be overseen by a seven-member group of “very senior people” – including possibly an economist, a social scientist and others. “We are not talking about a panel of Nobel Prize winners,” he said. The aim is to appoint people with the varied experience to judge and oversee the complex process of providing balanced, high-quality scientific advice on important issues. The panel, which reports directly to Moedas, will be supported by a unit to be created inside Smits’ Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. The unit, by the end of next year, is foreseen to have some 26 staff, he said.

Q. How will it get the advice?

A. The first and most important step, Smits said, is that the supply side, being the various academies of science and technology around Europe, get organised. These bodies – such as the Leopoldina in Germany and the Royal Society in Britain – routinely provide scientific advice to their own governments. But the Commission, he said, hasn’t in the past routinely connected to that advice. SAM will establish a regular conduit to the academies with the help of their European umbrella organisations, such as ALLEA. Smits said that in late March the European academies signed in Berlin a memorandum of understanding with the aim to enhance cooperation between themselves and the Commission. "This is really a big step forward and we are grateful to the presidents of the umbrellas that made this possible," said Smits. Under Horizon 2020, €6 million over four years is foreseen to be allocated to support the new information channel – and, if the high level group wishes, commission new research.

Q. Can others provide advice also?

A. In the beginning, the focus will be on establishing a good, transparent relationship with the academies – including regular publication of what advice the Commission is considering, and from whom. The high level group, Smits said, is free to suggest other sources of scientific advice also – from, for instance, universities and other countries. But advice from companies, industry associations, non-governmental organisations and others with a potential bias on an issue will be treated with caution. “On companies, we have to be extremely careful that the supply (of advice) is independent, of high quality, and not lobbying. But gradually the supply will be expanded, step by step.”

Q. What will the high level group do?

A. Its role is oversight. “They are the watchdogs of the system – the guardian angels,” said Smits. “They’re not filtering anything – saying ‘take this study into account and ignore that one since we don't like its findings.’ They make sure we get the best studies available.” They have to make sure, he said, "that SAM is functioning properly. Is the demand clearly defined? Is the supply side providing quality input? Is SAM transparent?” They are, as such, in line with the Commission’s plans for ‘Better Regulation’: A Juncker initiative to overhaul the way the Commission develops rules. “If we demonstrate that we are involving the national learned societies in the shaping of our policies, if we show that we are listening to the national academies, we will increase the legitimacy of policy-making,” Smits said.

Q. What issues will it consider?

A. The group won’t tackle everything. The Commission already has an elaborate system of scientific advice feeding into its subject-specific directorates-general. That won’t change, Smits said. Rather, SAM will be used “when there is a need for new policy initiatives – not for routine directives.” He cited some hypothetical examples: shale gas, feeding the planet, or rapid response to emergencies like Ebola. It will not get into science policy implementation, such as setting the priorities for Horizon 2020, the Commission’s flagship research and innovation programme.

Q. What about the Joint Research Centres?

A. The Commission’s in-house labs had been proposed by some as playing the main post-Glover role in scientific advice. Said Smits (who was formerly deputy director-general in the JRC): “The JRC is one of the sources of supply, and a very good one. It is part of the (Commission) system and therefore by some not always seen as independent from it.”  Furthermore, "they can't do everything." He added that the JRC would, however, play a key role in SAM.

Q. When does this happen?

A. Smits said a three-member group will be named soon to work over the summer to identify candidates for the high level group. The system will be in operation in the autumn.
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