How to fix the EU science advice muddle

29 Apr 2015 | Viewpoint
The EU needs objective science advice when framing its policies. Action is needed to clarify how and by whom this is delivered, says the former EU science chief Anne Glover

When newly-crowned Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced he would abolish the office of EU chief science adviser after the incumbent Anne Glover left the post at the beginning of the year, the news was greeted as a giant leap backward for science in Europe.

Nobody in the European Commission liked, or agreed, with the characterisation. Channels and procedures for framing evidence-informed policies didn't leave through the same door as Glover, they protested.  

Glover, now a research fellow in the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, sees merit in the argument. In an essay entitled ‘Evidence and Policy in the European Commission: Towards a Radical Transformation’ co-written with her former chief of staff Jan Marco Müller, she says the variety of evidence-suppliers in Brussels is simply head-spinning.

“Each [European Commission directorate] has its own sources of evidence, which may include the Joint Research Centre (JRC), various EU agencies, standing scientific committees, ad hoc expert groups, as well as contract work done by third parties,” she writes.

What is missing is a clear way to make sense of all this. Currently there is no harmonised procedure for the gathering, use and communication of scientific evidence. Legislative documents coming from the many pockets of the EU do not necessarily describe all their sources of evidence, says Glover. Who do desk officers working in the Commission’s transport department talk to when they need an informed view on a new electric car policy? Answer: it is hard to predict.

Apart from conjuring up moments of Kafka, this complex branching structure is costly, introduces unavoidable duplication, and has, “perhaps justifiably triggered criticism from member states,” Glover adds.

Based on her hard-won experience, Glover suggests six ways to clarify and streamline how scientific evidence is brought to bear in policy formulation.

Make better use of the JRC

Consultation of the JRC, “should be compulsory” for Brussels civil servants, Glover says, noting that often, when eurocrats need more information on a subject, they call on, “Costly third-party contractors to collect and analyse data, ignoring the fact that there is an in-house science service, the JRC, with 3,000 staff and an annual budget exceeding €300 million.”

With more than 90 per cent of JRC staff located outside Brussels, awareness of the institution is not always high. To counteract this, it should be firmly tied to the work of the Commission’s vice-president, Frans Timmermans, who has been granted far-reaching regulatory power by Juncker.

Appoint local evidence ambassadors

“Each DG with a political mandate should have a science adviser, ideally attached directly to the respective DG,” Glover says. These would liaise with the JRC or external advisers in national academies, universities, businesses or non-governmental organisations. If the Commission wanted to save some money on recruitment, it could staff these positions with people seconded from JRC.

Appoint a scientific ombudsman

There needs to be a port of call when citizens or interest groups think the Commission is sidestepping or ignoring the scientific evidence, Glover says. This person would be the voice of science ‘in the room’ when political decisions are taken. As this might imply complaints about the work of the JRC, “It would be healthy to keep this role separate from the JRC.”

Develop a transparent ‘evidence portal’

When drawing up new policies, Commission staff could post regular ‘calls for evidence’ in a special corner of the Commission website. JRC scientists could then review the evidence, adding their own suggestions where relevant, and parcel it off to the appropriate department. As well as widening the pool of potential evidence suppliers, Glover thinks it would double-up as a good way of letting ordinary citizens join the dots on how decisions are made, keeping political masters accountable.  

Stay plugged into international networks

The EU needs to keep up with and send a representative to various international diplomacy fora for science advisers (the European Science Advisers Forum, for example).

Include the European Council

The European Parliament got its own in-house think tank in 2013 but the fact that the real seat of power in Brussels, the European Council, does not have its own science service is, “worrying”, says Glover. “All this increases the risk that politicians will make decisions on very technical EU legislation without access to the necessary expertise,” she writes.  

Abridged, from one of a series of essays on science inputs to policy published by Centre for Science and Policy here

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