Call for a post-pandemic upgrade of scientific advice mechanisms in the EU

12 Oct 2023 | News

The role of science in informing policy has never been more explicit – or at times more controversial - than in the response to COVID-19. A new report examines the fallout and how the scientific advice system can be improved    

The COVID-19 pandemic thrust scientists into the spotlight, helping to inform policy decisions, and communicating directly with the general public. For many this provided reassurance that unpopular control measures such as lockdowns were necessary. But for those who disagreed, it fuelled greater scepticism and distrust of experts.

Added to the mix was the polarising effect of social media - and the stark recognition that science does not have all the answers.

In response to this increasingly complex landscape, an overhaul of the governance system of scientific advice in Europe is needed, according to a new report from the European Commission’s research directorate on the future of science for policy in Europe.

The report looks at current trends and their possible policy implications, including the growing influence of AI-based predictions on policy decisions; the focus on mission-oriented research and policy support; and the growth of citizen involvement in science and its potential to diminish the authority of traditional academics.

One conclusion is that the governance system of scientific advice should be overhauled so that the mandates of the different EU advisory bodies are clearly defined. In addition, these bodies should be regularly evaluated for their effectiveness and appropriateness.

The Scientific Advice Mechanism, which includes a group of chief scientific advisors and a consortium of European academy networks, was established in 2016 to advise the European Commission. This is also the task of the Joint Research Centre, while the Parliament has the European Parliamentary Research Service and the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology.

Over the years the Commission has tried various models for scientific advice bodies but failed to commit to a long-term system. Back in 2014, the Commission decided to abolish the office of Chief Scientific Adviser, after a three-year experiment to improve the way it ensured EU policymaking is backed by solid scientific evidence. The office had been held by Scottish microbiologist Anne Glover, but political support for her position waned after her views on genetically modified organisms angered environmental groups

Defining the roles of these bodies is particularly important in the context of challenge-driven and mission-oriented research and policy practices, which are currently popular within EU research. This usually involves different stakeholders from academy, industry, public authorities and civil society collaborating to set research objectives that will benefit society.

But the advice from traditional scientific advisory bodies “may well contradict the advice arising from mission-oriented research”, which goes beyond the specific research activities, according to the report. To accommodate this divergence, the report recommends including wider stakeholder groups in governance structures in a more meaningful way, including non-governmental organisations, associations, and concerned citizens.

The report also points to the need for better ways of factoring the divergence of scientific knowledge, scientific dissent and the uncertainty around major societal challenges, into scientific advice.

“We should experiment with different modes of incorporating scientific evidence,” said Leena Sarvaranta, one of the paper’s authors, presenting the findings at the Commission’s Science for Policy in Europe conference on Tuesday.

Finally, it is important to recognise that both science and policy are values-based and to acknowledge that debates around values are a relevant part of advice mechanisms. At the same time, the report highlights the importance of the humanities and social sciences in defining societal challenges.

“We should embrace confrontation and allow scientific advice to question policy goals, and allow policymakers to question scientific knowledge,” Sarvaranta said. “Scientific advice to policymakers must be about speaking truth to power.”

The Commission is now reflecting on what the next steps should be, Joanna Drake, deputy director general at the research directorate told the meeting. “Science for policy could become a very institutionalised governance tool, and then it becomes boring, and people won’t read the reports,” she said. The pandemic was an example of a more “dynamic” system of scientific advice, where scientific advisers talked directly to the public.

Skills are another issue which is rarely discussed, Drake said. She suggested universities should design obligatory classes in which scientists and policy students work together on major global issues, enthusing young researchers about providing science-based advice to politicians.

Geopolitical tensions as well as local political trends are also a challenge, noted Jolita Butkeviciene, a director in the Joint Research Centre. “Weaker, more fragmented governments need to deliver on their promises,” she said. The question is, “How can we bring sound scientific advice in this fragile context?”

As the pandemic demonstrated, trust in the science that underlies contested control measures, such as wearing masks in public, is key to building trust in democracies.

When it comes to addressing future societal challenges, it is also important to have the right science, and this can be more difficult to predict. Fundamental science is the starting point for scientific advice, and is what will allow European policymakers to respond to future challenges, said Maria Leptin, president of the European Research Council.

A notable case in point is Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó, who earlier this month was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine with Drew Weissman, for their work on the mRNA technology that underpins COVID-19 vaccines. Karikó struggled to secure funding for her work, which Leptin said illustrated the fact it was researcher-led and not shaped by top-down, mission-oriented policy decisions.

“We can’t predict the problems that will hit us in twenty or even five years’ time,” Leptin said. “We must let researchers who recognise interesting problems follow their intuition. The best [that] the rest of us can do is be alert and listen.”

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