15 Jan 2015   |   News

Moedas to investigate alternatives to EU chief science adviser

With the post of EU chief science adviser axed, Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas is to look at new ways of providing independent scientific inputs to policymaking. A list of the options will be presented before the summer, he tells Science|Business

Commissioner for Research, Carlos Moedas is looking at how to improve the scientific evidence base for EU policy and will present the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with a list of options before the summer.

“President Juncker has asked me to look into the different best practices [for independent science advice] in the world,” said Moedas. “We want to look at it in detail and see the best way to do it in the future,” he told Science|Business.

There was open discontent in the scientific community at the end of last year following the axeing of the office of Chief Scientific Adviser, a position created under former President José Manuel Barroso in early 2012 and held by Anne Glover, former chief scientist in Scotland. The common interpretation is that science has been downgraded under Juncker.

There is no indifference to independent science advice in Brussels, or a conspiracy to shelve it, Moedas argued. Juncker places a “huge importance” on the role, he maintained.

While Moedas will investigate the different ways in which policy makers get access to scientific advice in other countries, there is no set timeline for coming up with a new approach. “We want to do [our research] in a disciplined, analytical way,” Moedas said. All judgement will be withheld until Juncker has reviewed the possibilities.

Many faces of science advice

When the Commissioner gets in under the bonnet of the subject, he will find plenty of models for independent science to choose from.

The UK, Ireland and Czech Republic have a government chief scientist while several countries, including Portugal, Finland, Denmark and Greece, have an advisory committee. In Spain, Italy and Sweden, science advice comes from civil servants. Others, such as Austria, Hungary and the Netherlands, look to the president of the national academy of science to perform the role. For the rest, including France and Germany, there is a hybrid model – or none at all.

Since taking office last autumn, Juncker has started changing the way other types of policy advice gets to his ear, by reorganising the EC’s Bureau of European Policy Advisers - of which Glover was a part - and renaming it the European Policy Strategy Centre.

Quicker responses to research challenges

It will be equally important to oversee the rollout in 2015 of Horizon 2020, the EU’s €80 billion research programme, Moedas said.

Last Friday (9 January), he hosted an event in Brussels for one of the programme’s novel elements, the fast track to innovation (FTI), a €200 million pilot scheme offering grants to project teams from three to five organisations, to give promising ideas the last push to market.

“FTI is crucial because it helps innovative companies break through to the market more quickly,” Moedas said. There are no pre-defined research topics in the calls, and it should take consortia six months at most to get the money after applying for it.

The underlying message is to give people the perspective that Europe is not just a lumbering bureaucratic machine, but has policies which are agile, said Moedas. A good example of a quick reaction was when the Commission, in partnership with industry, unlocked €280 million for research on Ebola.

“We’re very excited about [FTI]. We want people who are willing to dare, to try. They’ll find they have the backing of the EU Commission,” Moedas said.

Settling into the job

Moedas became Commissioner of Research in September last year. So far, so good, he said. “It has been a very unique and fantastic time of my life.”

“I was very honoured to be entrusted the role and fought hard for this portfolio. I believe that research and innovation are the keys to our future and being part of this is something I find really exciting.”

The personal highlight to date was a trip to South Africa. “I went to South Africa to the launch of a programme called EDCTP (European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership), which is a partnership between Europeans and African countries to do research on rampant diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis and tropical diseases,” said Moedas.

“When you see taxpayers’ money being used for such noble and important matters, I think it touches quite deeply. It makes you think we’re spending it the right way,” he added.

The programme aims to accelerate clinical trials that lay the ground for new drugs. Medicines in Africa that show early promise against diseases in small-scale clinical trials often fail to progress, mainly because poor countries lack the money and infrastructure for larger trials.

Life before Brussels

Born in Beja, in the south of Portugal, Moedas, 44, has no particular background in research policy. He began his career in the financial sector, working as a banker for Goldman Sachs and Eurohypo Investment Bank, and later in real estate, when he became managing director for Aguirre Newman in Spain. Moedas was elected to the Portuguese Parliament in 2011 and most notably negotiated with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over terms for the Portuguese bailout.

Moedas is scientifically qualified, with a degree in civil engineering from Lisbon’s Instituto Superior Técnico, and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Before his foray into finance, he worked briefly as an engineer for the Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux group in France.

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