EU Parliament science panel to update rules after pharma report controversy

14 Dec 2023 | News

The independent advice panel is at the centre of a transparency row after its report on pharmaceutical innovation was withdrawn, prompting MEPs to challenge its leadership

STOA chair Christian Ehler MEP. Photo: Eric Vidal / European Union

The European Parliament’s scientific advice panel is to update its transparency rules, following a heated debate in which MEPs accused the panel’s administration of overstepping its powers by withdrawing an independent report.

Draft guidelines sent to members of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), were discussed at a recent staff meeting where “consensus emerged on the need to clarify the process and make it more transparent,” STOA chair Christian Ehler MEP said in a panel meeting this morning.

There are also disagreements which will require discussion at a political level among members, notably concerning “the right of members to ask questions and what the function of those questions is,” he said.

STOA, which is composed of 27 MEPs, commissions reports from independent researchers to provide Parliament with scientific advice when debating complex legislation.

The panel was launched in 1987 but became more prominent in recent years, thanks to former MEP Paul Rübig who strengthened its role and established a science media hub to help Parliament communicate complex technologies to the general public.

Ehler was elected to chair STOA in March 2022. Back then, he argued Parliament needed to “muscle up” and turn the panel into a fully-fledged science think tank that would re-establish the role of science in legislative debates. It should be “an arbiter and watchdog for the principal framework of science and academia in Europe,” he said.

Fast forward 18 months later, the panel is in the middle of controversy over an independent report on the proposed reform of the EU pharmaceutical legislation. Now, some MEPs want clear rules on whether STOA members should be allowed to interfere with reports it commissions by asking questions on such things as their scope and methodology.

One view is that they “should not intervene with the academic process of the study, but rather should ask political questions, so that the answers by the study’s authors help members in their role as policymakers,” Ehler said.

Others believe members should be able to ask questions with a view to improving the quality of the study. Members already have the right to request a peer review and this would provide the basis for such a request.

STOA members will now be asked to decide whether the panel should have a role in assuring the academic quality of studies, and whether they should have a say in when a study is ready to be published.

They will also decide whether the lead panel member assigned to a study will have a role in the study’s development before it is presented.

Members have been invited to submit comments on the draft questions, and if a consensus is reached following technical discussions revised guidelines could be considered and possibly endorsed at the next panel meeting on 18 January.

If it is agreed that in addition to guidelines, changes to the STOA rules are required, these will have to be approved by the presidency of the European Parliament.

Disappearing report

Currently, STOA rules state that a report may be withheld if the panel decides to subject it to review by independent external scientists, but make no mention of whether members’ questions should be addressed before a study is published.

Members called for clarifications after the report on pharmaceutical innovation and access to medicines was published on 27 October, only to be taken offline three days later.

In a story published by Politico, transparency campaigners questioned whether the report was withdrawn due to political pressure from the EPP’s Pernille Weiss, who sits on STOA and is one of Parliament’s rapporteurs for the hotly debated pharmaceutical reform package, and also from panel chair Ehler, also of the EPP.

Weiss’s draft report on the Commission’s proposal is more closely aligned with the pharma industry than the conclusions in the STOA report, and both Weiss and Ehler submitted several questions for the study’s authors.

The majority of their questions related to the authors’ methodology and the evidence behind their recommendations.

The STOA Secretariat said the draft study had been published prematurely before these questions had been addressed, blaming a “clerical error”, and on 23 November the final report was published, with the addition of a question and answer section.

At a panel meeting on 23 November, several members argued there was no basis for delaying publication of the pharma report, as no peer review was requested.

“It would be a dangerous loophole to allow any member to delay the publication of a study if they do not agree with the conclusions,” said S&D’s Maria Manuel Leitão Marques.

Green MEP Michèle Rivasi took exception to the explanation for the report’s withdrawal. “We need accountability,” she said. “Is the leader of the STOA administration deciding this on his own? We can’t allow this, because otherwise it’s going to discredit STOA.”

MEPs not involved in STOA also expressed their concern. “If there is even the slightest suspicion that these reports are censored, or withdrawn, or for political reasons the author of the report is asked to review their own report, it doesn’t look very good,” Marc Botenga MEP told Science|Business.

He suggested reforming STOA so that each political group is represented could improve its creditability. “I don’t want the internal parliamentary procedures or struggles to cast doubt on the scientists proposing the report.”

STOA is revising the guidelines to make the process for asking questions clearer in the hope of avoiding similar controversies in the future.

Lobby interference

STOA members also called for more transparency after it was revealed that the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) had sent comments on the study to the STOA secretariat, Weiss and Ehler on 26 October, after the report was presented to the panel on 19 October, but before it was published. These comments were forwarded to the authors.

“To deliver better regulation we want a process where this kind of expert opinion is openly shared and discussed,” EFPIA told Science|Business.

STOA often receives unsolicited comments from third parties which are then sent to the studies’ authors for their information only, the STOA secretariat said.

During discussions on future guidelines, staff agreed on the “need to publish any documents shared with the panel members in the framework of a presentation in the panel,” Ehler said on Thursday.

The panel is caught up in the wider tensions surrounding the proposed pharmaceutical reform, which was previously delayed on three occasions, with MEPs accusing the Commission of bowing the pressure from the industry. Parliament’s main political groups remain far apart and a compromise is expected to be difficult to reach.

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