New EC Science Advice Mechanism Appoints Seven High Level Advisers

(November 27th, 2015) To help advise it on science, the European Commission has introduced a new science advice mechanism headed by a high level group of seven science advisors who have been selected from the highest echelons of European science. Jeremy Garwood reports.





The first appointments to the “High Level Group of Science Advisors” were announced on 10th November. In a spirit of balance, the seven members come from seven different countries and seven different disciplines. There are four men and three women.

This Science Advice Mechanism (SAM) was first proposed in May as a replacement for the EC’s short and unfortunate experiment with a chief scientific adviser (CSA).
As reported in the Lab Times article, ‘The Rise and Fall of Europe’s first Chief Scientist’, the previous EC President, Barroso, had appointed a UK biologist, Anne Glover, to be the Commission’s first CSA in 2011. Although there are other models for providing science advice to governments (discussed in LT online editorial 626) the choice of a single chief science adviser was highly controversial since, as Glover herself admitted, she had “been a constant target of lobbying” and had been accused of advocating policy changes that could favour commercial interests. In July 2014, a coalition of nine Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) had asked the new EC President, Juncker, to scrap the CSA position arguing that “the post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by, or for, the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration.” Subsequently, President Juncker announced a new structure based on a group of science advisers that should be “independent of institutional or political interests”. It should bring together evidence and insights from different disciplines and approaches, and it must be “transparent” in its operations. This new SAM attempts to find a balance between the feeling that the EC is a faceless bureaucracy that doesn’t listen enough to scientific reasoning and the all-too visible and exposed role of the single CSA who is easily subjected to external influence and who can make ‘individual’ errors.

The names

A total of 162 nominations were received from 74 organisations. The seven appointments to the High Level Group were finally chosen from this list by a three-person “scouting team” – Rianne Letschert, chair of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences, António Vitorino, former Justice Commissioner, and David King, the UK special representative for climate change and a former Chief Scientifc Adviser to the UK government.

The founding members of the SAM’s High Level Group of Science Advisors are:

- Janusz Bujnicki, a Polish bioinformatician who leads a lab at the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw and serves on a scientific policy committee that advises Poland's science ministry;
- Pearl Dykstra, a Dutch sociologist from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who has been vice president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2011;
- Elvira Fortunato, a Portuguese materials scientist from the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Portugal;
- Rolf-Dieter Heuer, a German physicist and Director of CERN;
- Julia Slingo, a British climate researcher who is chief scientist at the UK’s Meteorological Office;
- Cédric Villani, a French mathematician who heads the Henri Poincaré Institute in Paris;
- Henrik Wegener, a Danish microbiologist who is executive vice-president, chief academic officer and provost of the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby .

What will the High Level Group of Science Advisors actually do?

The tasks of the newly-appointed group are:

1. to help the EC make policy by providing the commission with independent scientific advice on specific policy issues where such advice is critical to the development of EU policies or legislation and “does not duplicate advice being provided by existing bodies.” The advice should  “identify the most important and relevant evidence and empirical findings that can support decision making”, including an assessment of the “robustness and limitations of the evidence and empirical findings”.
2. It should also help the commission in “identifying specific policy issues where independent scientific advice is needed”.
3. Finally, it is expected to provide “recommendations for improving the overall interaction between commission policy-making processes and independent scientific advice”

However, the EC already has a huge body of science advice via its own Joint Research Centre (with some 3000 researchers) “where scientists look at everything from disaster forecasting and assessment, to monitoring the way farmers grow their crops”, and there are also the EU regulatory agencies (e.g. EMA, EFSA, etc.) and the Commission’s Science Committees and Expert Groups. To avoid confusion about their respective roles, the Commissioner for Research, Carlos Moedas, has already said that the High Level Group will not try to “replicate or duplicate” the work of the Joint Research Centre. 

In fact, the seven members of the High Level Group will be keeping their current jobs and will not be directly employed by the commission. Instead, the EC can ask them to devote up to 40 working days a year to their group tasks “including meetings and remote work” (for the chair-person and deputy chair-person, the maximum number is 60 working days). The members of the group will be paid €450 for each full day of work, whether at a plenary meeting or “remote work”. Their first meeting will be held in January 2016. They are then expected to meet between four and six times a year, but can call emergency ad-hoc meetings when ‘urgent advice’ is needed. The group will be given a support staff of 25 people within the EC’s research directorate. 

The newly-appointed science advisers were asked about their roles and expectations. Pearl Dykstra said that the panel was selected not only on the basis of personal expertise but also because of their contacts. “A lot of the job will be saying, ‘I don’t know the answer but I’ll get you someone who does.’ We can put the Commission in touch with the right people.” Janusz Bujnicki also spoke of his skills at networking. “I bring my experience in connecting people – different groups, organisations, people of different ages and even political views.” However, Bujnicki admitted he is not familiar with EU institutions. “The first thing I’ll want to find out is how the different EU bodies work together. What is the information flow like? And what’s the influence flow?” Meanwhile, Henrik Wegener said the group are “starting from scratch” and will have to develop their “procedures from practice, just like anything else.” But he noted that their role was to provide science advice and not make policy - “There’s sometimes a tendency to separate people into ‘pro-’ and ‘anti-’ boxes. But, the main thing is that scientists don’t make any decisions - that’s the politicians’ job.”

Influence?

The plan is for the Science Advice Mechanism to support the EC with high quality, timely and independent scientific advice for its policy-making activities. However, the group may have less influence over EU policies than some observers are hoping. Oliver Geden, who heads the EU research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin said he thought “the new mechanism is rather overrated. Although it has the potential to improve the commission's reports or legislative proposals, there is no mechanism in place that could improve actual EU decisions. The role of scientific knowledge in the EU's complex decision-making processes is quite limited”. Martin Kowarsch, head of scientific assessments, ethics and public policy at Germany’s MCC climate change research institute also noted that “the legal and financial foundations of the instrument are still poorly defined, as is its accountability structure.”

There were some positive reactions to the SAM from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that had previously demanded the scraping of the EC’s CSA post. Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director of Greenpeace UK, said he had no reason to think these seven scientists were other than ‘excellent people’, but that the important issue was that the “independence, transparency, remit and interactions with other Commission science functions so that such a panel enhances rather than confuses the process. That has still to be worked out in practice”. Greenpeace spokesman Mark Breddy said they will continue to urge the Commission to ensure a clear separation of scientist and political roles. “The Commission's decisions on issues like toxic chemicals, climate change, or controversial pesticides have a direct impact on the environment, and the health, safety, and well-being of millions of EU citizens. It is crucial that they are based on the best scientific advice available, free from the tampering of corporate lobbying and political meddling.”

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: www.publicdomainpictures.net/Dennis Bohn




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