Governments, administrators and scientific experts join forces to assess how to draw up better, evidence-driven policies and address ‘wicked problems’ like pandemics and climate change
A new EU project is aiming to promote the role and use of scientific knowledge in policymaking in seven participating member states, after current shortcomings came under the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two-year project, an initiative of the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the OECD officially launched in November last year. It involves Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania and the Netherlands.
It is both a reaction to widely reported weaknesses in the systems of evidence-informed policymaking around Europe, and an attempt to resolve them.
A JRC survey of 500 national experts carried out in 2020, found that seven in ten respondents agreed that the ‘science-for-policy’ system in their country was “fragmented” and that the organisations “rarely coordinate activities and are often not aware of each other.”
The survey also found that 63% of participants felt scientific knowledge is not translated and formatted in a way that can be easily used and understood by policymakers.
These findings were included in a Commission staff working document published in October, aimed at promoting the use of science in informing policy making in the EU.
The topic was also raised at the Council of the EU’s Competitiveness Council for research and space on 2 December last year, with various ministers stating their interest in developing panels of science advisers within different national ministries, while also stressing the importance of coordinating science advice activities at an EU level.
While support for the importance of evidence-informed policymaking is not new – the Commission considers it a cornerstone of better regulation – it has been given fresh impetus lately. This is in part due to shortcomings exposed by the pandemic but also because dealing with so-called ‘wicked problems’ with many interdependent factors, such as climate change, energy prices, or regulating artificial intelligence, also requires a high level of scientific input.
Jurgita Šiugždinienė, Lithuania's education, science and sports minister, told an online workshop organised by the JRC the task of improving science-based decision making in the public sector is of “the utmost importance.”
Karin Jaanson, executive director of the Estonian Research Council, which helped in bringing Estonia into the project, told Science|Business now is a good time to reflect on the use of scientific advice in policy making.
“If we look at today's world, policy makers need scientific evidence more than ever, and actually it's not a very easy task to provide [it]. It requires trust and many other things because today’s world is so complex,” she said.
Estonia is in the process of reorganising its different science advisory activities, with plans to increase the number of staff and for the Estonian Research Council to act as a central coordinator for the different activities.
In that sense, the JRC/OECD project came along at the right time, with the Estonian Research Council hoping to learn best practices from other participating countries.
A more general objective, said Liina Eek, coordinator of Estonia’s role in the project, is to try to gain further attention for the role of scientific advice and the cooperation between scientists and policy makers.
During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world got used to seeing scientists on television, hearing them on the radio or watching them stand alongside politicians setting out new policies. It put a renewed emphasis, at least in the public sphere, on the role of scientific advisers.
“That's why maybe the task of improving science advice and to inform policy making is easier, and if we want to do that then we need to find the best solutions. That’s why it's good to participate in this kind of project,” Jaanson said.
Marrying science and politics
While the goal of improving policy making by applying scientific evidence is one thing, achieving it is another. The Commission’s working document highlighted several areas where the systems and processes for doing this fall short.
For example, in many instances politicians and scientists are in two distinct communities, with little overlap or collaboration, and working to different timeframes. This can make it hard when it comes to developing policies that require the input of both groups. On top of this, there is often a lack of coordination between different advisory groups, meaning politicians can be bombarded with reports from different directions, containing varying advice on the same topic.
These issues are well known to Anne-Greet Keizer, international liaison of the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy and responsible for the country’s involvement in the JRC/OECD project. She said that while the Netherlands generally has a good system for feeding science through to policy system, it could still learn from other countries.
“One of the things we saw during the pandemic is that the countries that already had a system for this type of outbreak, like the Netherlands, at first appeared to be coping better,” Keizer said. “But then quite soon, countries without an existing system were more flexible and were more able to see that this virus was of a different nature, and were quicker to adapt to that,” she told Science|Business.
The JRC/OECD project will help the Netherlands to understand if the country’s systems are still working in the optimal way by learning about the practices of other member states.
The project is financed by the EU’s Technical Support Instrument programme, launched in 2021 to help member states carry out reforms to governance, public administration and the financial sector.
During the two-year project, an assessment of the participating countries’ systems for feeding scientific evidence through to policy making will be carried out and recommendations will be made for improving them. There will also be cross-country workshops and training courses.
Keizer said the special interest of the project for the Netherlands is the contact it will give the country with best practices being developed in countries it does not normally collaborate with.
“We often look to the UK because we understand the language and it’s easy, so it is very interesting to come into contact with people from Greece or Latvia, for example,” she said.
“I hope that the Netherlands can learn something from the other countries and can be inspired by them, and that it also helps to really strengthen the discussion on science for policy within the Netherlands.”