Science advice cannot solve political dilemmas, says new Joint Research Centre director

04 Jun 2020 | News

‘When science and politics meet, it can become quite crunchy,’ director general Stephen Quest tells Science|Business

Stephen Quest

Stephen Quest, director of the Joint Research Center. Photo: European Union.

In times of crisis scientists can give advice to policymakers but they can’t solve political dilemmas, says the new head of the EU’s in-house science service.

As the coronavirus began to spread across Europe and beyond, politician turned to scientists for advice on how to contain it, which treatments work best, which vaccines to fund, and what kind of economic stimulants are needed to get economies out of the slump.

According to Stephen Quest, the newly appointed director general of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), the COVID-19 pandemic has shown once more that science is an important pillar of policymaking. But he said, “When science and politics meet, it can become quite crunchy.”

Countries in Europe were slow to come up with a coordinated plan to tackle the pandemic, with some deciding to go ahead with plans that sought to avoid lockdowns and expose large portions of the population to the virus in order to build so-called herd immunity.

For example, the UK government initially favoured the herd immunity theory, but later imposed lockdown measures when modelling forecast high mortality. Meanwhile, Sweden chose not to enforce any lockdown measures, but its chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell now wishes he had taken a slightly different path.

Other countries imposed strict social distancing measures and decided to shut down schools much earlier than others.

In eastern Europe, lockdowns were put in place early on, before the number of recorded cases reached alarming levels, curbing the number of infections more effectively than in other parts of Europe. Denmark was one of the first European countries to shut down schools, but also among the first to reopen them.

Good or bad, all these decisions were informed in some way by the available scientific knowledge about the virus. But scientists have warned politicians should refrain from using science to justify political decisions.

“You can’t replace politics with science and scientists can’t solve political questions,” Quest told Science|Business. “The great danger is dressing up political decisions as science ones.”

According to Quest, who has dual British/French nationality and was educated in the UK, a public science service should review the scientific evidence available and translate it in simple language that can be understood by politicians and the public. “The political challenge is how to ensure that science will be trusted by the public,” he said.

Change of guard during a pandemic

Quest took up the reins of the JRC in April from Charlina Vitcheva, who has been acting as JRC boss since the previous director Vladimir Šucha left in 2019 to enter politics in his home country of Slovakia. Taking on a new leadership role is challenging in the best of times, but doing it during a pandemic is something Quest says he, “wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.”

Quest joined the commission in 1993 and over his long career as a public servant has held a number of different positions. From 2013 - 2016 he was director general for informatics and most recently director general for taxation and the customs union.

To adapt to the new job and make sense of the new duties, Quest wanted to go meet as many people as possible across the JRC’s six sites in five different EU countries, but had to settle for videoconferences instead.

All the JRC’s work had to temporarily shift towards the pandemic, as more than 90 per cent of JRC staff had to work remotely. Research sites in Belgium, Germany and Italy, the Netherlands and Spain were all affected by the lockdowns but the pandemic did not have a significant impact on the JRC’s research. “So far [the impact] has proven to be manageable,” said Quest.

In response to the crisis, JRC developed a new control material to help laboratories avoid false negative results in COVID-19 tests and was very quickly ready to dispatch 3,000 vials of the material to testing labs across the EU.

The JRC is also working on a database of COVID-19 in vitro diagnostic devices and test methods, gathering information on available tests in one place. Researchers have also launched an online survey in all 27 EU member states to better understand the social and economic impact of the pandemic on the population. The information will inform policy making around the EU’s €750 billion recovery strategy announced last week.

“We have delivered absolutely phenomenal input for crisis response, notwithstanding the difficult circumstances,” said Quest. 

Managing change

As the commission announced its recovery package, the JRC will continue to play a big role in bringing science to the policies needed for the recovery. The major task over the next five years will be to mobilise and deploy its knowledge and expertise to support the recovery policies.

“The challenge for us is as a unique organisation with one foot in the research community and one foot in the policy world is to bring science into the policy process,” said Quest. “The good news is we have a good shot at it because of our multidisciplinary experience.”

Before leaving the office in October 2019, Quest’s predecessor was working on a plan to shift the focus of the JRC from foresight towards “management of change”. Until recently, the JRC operated in the so-called deficit model of science-policy interaction, in which it made linear predictions about the future, based on analysis of the past. Šucha began pushing the JRC into a new paradigm that favoured interdisciplinary thinking, instead of linear predictions.

Quest believes the paradigm shift should continue, as it is needed to ensure that science continues to be relevant to policymakers. He argues the JRC’s work can be of service to the policy agenda of commission, but it could also shape it. The JRC is not trying “to replace policy makers, but to make sure policy is based on sound advice,” said Quest.

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