11 Jun 2015   |   News

JRC turns theory to practice in its disaster response capabilities

It is known best as the Commission's in-house source of scientific advice. But the JRC’s capabilities go well beyond the theory, not just in helping with oversight of EU regulations, but also in providing much-needed practical help in responding to major humanitarian crises

Seven minutes after the deadly 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on Saturday 25 April, a red alert for international assistance was sent by SMS to more than 22,000 people worldwide. Around the same time satellites orbiting the planet began configuring data into damage assessment maps for first responders and humanitarian agencies.

In an inter-connected globe, none of this sounds surprising. But what is unexpected is the source of the alert. The response was quietly led in Brussels, 9,000 kilometres away from the epicentre, by the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), the department charged with providing scientific expertise to support EU policy development,

When there is a crisis, JRC stands ready to rapidly provide expertise and support. “If there is something needed, we do it,” says Vladimir Šucha, JRC Director General, who oversees 3,000 scientists and support staff.

At an event hosted by Science|Business on the 28 May on ‘Scientific evidence in policymaking’, he reprised highlights of decades of meticulous knowledge building and its application in practical responses, across a range of different disciplines.

So for example, the JRC helped Pakistan in the aftermath of its 2005 earthquake and Lebanon following an oil spill in 2006. But it also helps to alleviate future threats, with a forecasting system it is hoped can prevent more disastrous flooding in Europe’s Danube and Elbe river basins, being one example.  

Another case in point is the JRC’s response to the emergence of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) - otherwise known as  mad cow disease - in the UK in the 1980s and the subsequent public health alert when it was found to have been communicated through the food chain to humans in the 1990s. “Do you remember the BSE crisis?” Šucha asked the audience of policymakers, academics and industry representatives. “JRC helped with its knowledge and expertise.”

Yet despite all this, and a history that traces back to the 1950s, there is a feeling the JRC is hiding in plain sight.

It is a perception the EU itself can be seen as promoting. After the Nepalese earthquake there was a flurry of statements from the heads of the three Brussels institutions, announcing emergency aid. The science story was there, but hidden at the end of the press releases.

The research over which Šucha presides is carried out across seven scientific institutes in six countries. In the JRC’s institute in Italy, researchers carry out regular spot-checks on farm land to ensure Common Agriculture Policy subsidy payments are correctly claimed and agri-environmental rules are being followed, while in another room computers simulate earthquakes to help with designing earthquake-proof buildings .  

At the JRC base in Netherlands, scientists are concerned with energy and the safety of nuclear installations, while researchers in Belgium are involved in producing standards and reference materials. 

In addition to tracking earthquakes, the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System in Brussels, which the JRC developed with the United Nations, raises the alarm for tsunamis, tropical cyclones and floods around the world.

There are signs the JRC is getting better at telling its own story. There is a recently enhanced website and the JRC Ispra site in Italy is the main EU face at the 2015 Milan world fair, Milano Expo.

JRC’s roots go back to 1957, the year when France, West Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg created a common market in labour, capital, goods and services.

It began life as the Joint Nuclear Research Centre, but in the 1980s was diversified to cover issues relating to the environment, remote sensing, renewable energies, informatics, advanced materials and food safety and quality, which were moving up the pecking order, while nuclear was going the other way.

The JRC and science advice

The JRC clearly has a lot going on. But some want it to do more. Move the institution closer to the ear of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, is a common plea heard around Brussels.  

When the position of EU chief science adviser terminated with the end of the Barroso II Commission, some believed the JRC would step in. However, on May 13, the Commission announced a new seven-member panel of experts to oversee the process of providing scientific advice.

In an interview with Science|Business, Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General for Research and Innovation observed, “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.”

There has been plenty of noisy debate and populist headlines over the EU’s science future, but for Šucha there is no doubt that the demand for evidence for policy-making is increasing. “There is more evidence in the Commission and member states today than ever before; its growth is exponential,” he says.

Šucha, who likes to say the JRC is in the business of, “science support rather than science advice,” is forthright about the limits of any one institute’s influence. “Do you have a recipe for science advice? You don’t. There’s not one single person that is best qualified to advise the EU on what scientific evidence has to say about policy.”

He heartily approves of the new panel, which has promised to tap into science academies around Europe. “I see it as an attempt to draw knowledge from academia and universities in member states. It’s a quite innovative approach, one that’s about diversifying and involving more [researchers].”

And if it fails, there is no big drama, “One science advice model was tested, now another one. Maybe in five years there will be something else,” Šucha says.

Šucha CV

A geoscientist by training, Šucha made a formal break with carrying out research on entering to the Commission in 2006, as director for culture and media in the Commission’s department for education and culture, a post he held until 2012.

He then became deputy director-general of the JRC, where for the next two years he helped coordinate the JRC’s many sites. When his boss, Dominique Ristori, left to front the European Commission's DG Energy at the beginning of 2014, Šucha took over, becoming the first Slovak to hold a Director-General post in the Commission.  

Born 1961 in central Slovakia.

Educated in Bratislava’s Comenius University (Master’s) and Slovak Academy of Sciences (PhD)

Before the Commission he worked as a researcher and lecturer at Comenius University, then dove-tailing into policy fields in 2000, first serving as a counsellor in the Slovak Mission to the EU for four years, and adviser for European affairs to the Slovak minister of research and education between 2004 and 2005, and finally as Director of the Slovak Research and Development Agency between 2005 and 2006.

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