The major conference on a new dialogue between science and policy-making organised by the European Commission and INGSA last week is the latest of long series of events highlighting the importance of getting this interface right. Science is a fundamental knowledge input to decision-making. The EU institutions need to base their decisions on the best available science, especially in today’s context of an economic and legitimacy crisis. It enhances legitimacy, predictability, proportionality and accountability – all factors that foster investments in innovation and promote prosperity.
Yet this is not easy to achieve. Existing risk governance in the EU has unfolded on a piecemeal basis; requirements exceed technical and scientific capacity, there is over-politicisation of science especially in implementing legislation; and public opinion wonders about the role of science and experts in decision-making.
The European Risk Forum has conducted a comprehensive research project on this subject. A forthcoming ERF Report proposes a framework where political commitments, legal provisions, institutional arrangements, and policies work consistently to ensure that the best available scientific evidence is procured, collected, validated and used by the EU institutions when they assess and manage risks to citizens and the environment.
Whilst there are already several instances of excellent, science-based practice in the Commission and its bodies, those practices, however, are fragmented, isolated, and not systematically linked one to another. The process of reform remains incomplete, giving rise to administrative discretion, stigmatisation and ultimately undermining the credibility of the whole system.
The ERF believes that significant reform, involving the EU institutions and the scientific community, the private sector, and civil society, is required, if these problems are to be overcome. Priority should be given to:
- Reaffirming the commitment clearly at the highest political levels to using the best available science;
- Adopting uniform standards for the collection and use of scientific evidence, emphasising the importance of excellence and defining the characteristics of the best available science;
- Revising the way in which scientific experts are selected, managing through transparent arrangements not only conflicts of financial interest but also bias and impartiality due to values and ideologies – how science is produced is more important than who produces it; and
- Establishing a central oversight body enforcing quality standards.
Whilst expert scientific assessments may not be able to resolve conflicts of values or to establish definitively the absence of all risks, our lifestyles depend on them, our government is based on them, and complex decisions cannot be made without them. There is, moreover, no credible alternative. The EU must recognise this, reject ideological critiques of science, and undertake the necessary reforms to improve and strengthen scientific assessments.
This is the natural complement to the EU Better Regulation strategy. It is the most promising means to deliver high standards of protection for Europe’s citizens and for the environment, whilst at the same time helping to stimulate risk-takers to invest in the innovations needed to restore growth and prosperity.