12 Nov 2019   |   News

Here’s the latest scientific advice to Commission: improve scientific advice

The EU’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors suggests ‘strengthened’ procedures for delivering evidence-based recommendations to Brussels policy makers

As a new European Commission prepares to take office next month, a special panel of advisors is proposing further improvements in the oft-contentious way Brussels gathers and uses scientific advice.

“The use of scientific evidence and advice in Commission policymaking can and should be further strengthened,” says a new report by the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors. Their suggestions include setting up a Commission-wide code of practice for scientific advice.

The recommendations “follow from our own expertise” since the group’s start in 2015, said Pearl Dykstra, deputy chair of the group and a sociology professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, in an interview with Science|Business. For scientific advice to have political credibility in an age of “fake news” and polarisation, she said, it has to be carefully managed – “to show we’re making the best use of the best of science, that we’re being critical of the quality of science, that we are communicating uncertainties and not downgrading the complexity.”

The group, set up after a noisy controversy five years ago over the Commission’s then-chief scientific advisor, has produced nine reports to the current Commission on issues ranging from cybersecurity to carbon emissions from automobiles. Now, turning the focus on how they and other Commission bodies analyse and present scientific evidence, the group published a cookbook on how they think it should work in Brussels or other capitals. This comes as the incoming Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, is planning more changes in the way it handles expert opinions.

One recommendation in the group’s report is “developing a single set of principles and good practices common to all scientific advice bodies in the European Commission.” At present, policy advice from scientists comes from several parts of the Commission: its Joint Research Centres, executive agencies such as the European Food Safety Agency, its directorates-general for energy, transport and other fields, and the Scientific Advice Mechanism – the system created in 2015 for Dykstra’s group to lead. The result, Commission critics say, is a profusion of policy recommendations with varying methodologies and evidence bases.

Code of Practice

One thing a general Code of Practice could do, said Dykstra, would be to spell out more clearly how to handle potential conflicts of interest among experts invited to submit evidence to formal Commission advisory bodies. The Commission has elaborate disclosure requirements for experts formally appointed to those bodies; but there are no consistent policies to deal with potential conflicts when the advisory panels invite other experts – from industry, academia or non-governmental organisations – to attend one of their evidence-gathering workshops or meetings.

“There is no clear code for experts called in on a more ad hoc basis,” she said. While industry is sometimes criticised for spinning data to suit its argument, she noted that there can also be “trickiness” in the way some NGOs work: “They will bring a particular kind of science which supports their position without it being sufficiently questioned.” She said her group is deliberately not specifying exactly how the Commission should handle such situations, but is recommending that it find a consistent method without “extreme bureaucratisation.”

Another suggestion the group makes concerns the Commission’s Regulatory Scrutiny Board, set up as part of President Jean-Claude Juncker’s “Better Regulation” efforts to filter out proposed rules deemed to be too burdensome. The Commission has guidelines for consulting stakeholders that were developed as part of that effort, but they “do not explicitly consider how scientific advice and scientific evidence can be a part of the process,” the SAM report says. Dykstra suggested that, in future, SAM could assist the regulatory board. Generally, she noted that her group had been able to work well with other parts of the Commission that do scientific advice.

What happens next to the group isn’t clear yet – though technically its mandate isn’t limited.

It was created after green NGOs mounted a campaign against Anne Glover, a Scottish molecular biologist who was sole Chief Scientific Advisor to then-Commission President Josè Manuel Barroso, for her stance on genetically modified organisms (she said there wasn’t enough evidence to ban them outright.) The next president, Juncker, didn’t re-appoint her, and Glover left behind a set of her own recommendations on reforming the system. Instead, Juncker created a special unit inside the research directorate-general to manage some of its scientific advice, and put a seven-member group of scientists at its helm. The group is chaired by Rolf-Dieter Heuer, former director general of CERN.

Political temperature rising

In Brussels as in other capitals, the political stakes in scientific advice have been rising. The SAM group’s papers, after a start with fairly uncontroversial topics, have been edging closer to touchier areas – most recently, what to do about “micro-plastic” particles now widely detected in the environment. Its cybersecurity report, the group says, “informed” a Commission proposal last year to beef up cybersecurity expertise with an EU technical centre and a network of national centres.

The commissioners pick the topics SAM studies but SAM has also suggested its own topics – and the report underscores that, to be politically useful, the chosen topics have to be carefully drafted “in dialogue” with politicians, and the process of gathering scientific evidence should be kept separate from writing recommendations on it.

“Scientific advice needs to be a transparent and impartial process, and to have a clear mandate to ensure that science is separate from politics,” the group writes.

With the incoming von der Leyen Commission, more changes are likely. Von der Leyen named Maroš Šefčovič, currently a Slovak commissioner, as responsible for “inter-institutional relations and foresight”; and a reorganisation of other policy-advisory services has already begun. On 13 November in Helsinki, meanwhile, a group of European academies of science – which under the SAM system gathers evidence for Dykstra’s group – is planning a conference on “the future of science advice in Europe.”

When asked about the group’s future, Dykstra (in her final year as deputy chair) responded with care. “We have not heard that we will not continue.”

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