The “clear and united voice of experts”?
Comments on the European Commission's new Scientific Advice Mechanism by Corporate Europe Observatory and the Fondation Sciences Citoyennes
On 10 November 2015, after many months preparation, the European Commission announced the composition of a High Level Group (HLG) of scientific advisors within a ‘Scientific Advice Mechanism’ (SAM) which will replace the position of Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to the President of the European Commission, which President Jean-Claude Juncker decided not to renew. The announcement effectively launched the new system, with a first meeting foreseen in January 2016.
According to the European Commission, this group of experts will meet between four to six times a year, and members (expected to dedicate up to 40 days a year for this work) will receive an allowance on top of expenses reimbursement but not a salary. They are appointed for terms of two and a half years, renewable once. The group will elect a chair and a vice-chair every year.
The first members of this group are all scientists (four men and three women) with an outstanding academic track record, covering several disciplines including one sociologist, and some already have experience in providing advice to political institutions:
- Janusz M. Bujnicki - Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Protein Engineering, International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Warsaw
- Pearl Dykstra - Professor of Sociology, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
- Elvira Fortunato - Professor, Materials Science Department of the Faculty of Science and Technology, NOVA University, Lisbon
- Rolf-Dieter Heuer - Director-General, European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)
- Julia Slingo - Chief Scientist, Met Office, Exeter
- Cédric Villani - Director, Henri Poincaré Institute, Paris
- Henrik C. Wegener - Executive Vice President, Chief Academic Officer and Provost, Technical University of Denmark
The announcement is good news in itself. The nomination process had raised questions: why was Business Europe, one of the loudest voices of big business in Brussels, among the “representative organisations” “invited to submit nominations”?
This time, unlike the former CSA's Science and Technology Advisory Council which included the CEO of General Electric Europe, the members of the Commission's in-house independent scientific advice team are all scientists, even though of course it is impossible for a group of seven scientists to cover “all fields of science relevant for Union policy making".
Individuals matter but policies matter just as much
But while individual qualities do matter, the broader system within which they will need to work matters just as much. The science-policy relationship is a complicated one, with politicians and lobbyists typically using scientific evidence as a source of political authority and pressuring their own scientists or scientific advisers to give them political ammunition. Scientists have to face the near-inevitable simplification or misrepresentation of their work in political contexts.
For scientific advisers, this translates into several constraints: they must resist politicians' demands to provide scientific justifications of the policy options they're pushing, resist the temptation to influence the political agenda themselves, and accept that politicians sometimes ignore their advice because science is only one of the many dimensions politicians must take into account when making a decision. Is such a task at all possible for normal humans? Probably not. As US political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. wrote, “scientific advisers are not super heroes”: mechanisms must be put in place to help them deal with the political implications of their work.
A positive outcome of the heated debates surrounding the end of the CSA position has been the considerable publicity given to the significant role played by scientific advisers to public decision-makers, but even more about the necessity to organise well their contribution to the policy process. Protecting them from political instrumentalisation is all the more important in the EU context, where the technicality of lobbying battles and the lack of public scrutiny confer extra political weight to expertise seen as independent from all parties at stake (the former CSA described her position as a “constant target of lobbying”). Where does the new SAM stand in light of these questions?
Progress since the CSA position, but big questions still pending
The European Commission's announcement in May 2015 that it was going to replace the defunct Chief Scientific Advisor position with a new High Level Advisory Group raised many questions. Some have since been partly answered.
Unlike the former CSA, the new SAM will be given proper means of operation. A team of twenty officials within the Commission's DG Research will support the work of the HLG, and a dedicated budget of €6 million will be provided from the Horizon 2020 budget to a group of five organisations representing European national academies and learned societies to interact with and support the HLG. These organisations are: Academia Europaea (The Academy of Europe), ALLEA (The European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities), EASAC (The Association of the National Science Academies of EU Member States), Euro-CASE (The European Council of Academies of Applied Sciences, Technologies and Engineering) and FEAM (The Federation of European Academies of Medicine). In March 2015 the five organisations signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to structure their cooperation.
According to the European Commission, the HLG will have “a high degree of autonomy including taking its own independent initiatives”.1 This is very important and had not been communicated before.
Unlike the former CSA, who was forbidden to publish the content of her advice to the President of the European Commission, the HLG has secured a certain transparency: “All relevant documents (such as agendas, minutes and participants' submissions) shall be made available in the Register [of the European Commission's expert groups]”. This is very important if the HLG is to be held accountable to the larger scientific community and the public. The European Commission currently insists that it “wants the SAM to operate with transparency”2. But what should this transparency entail exactly?
Independence and EU politics
Unlike the former CSA position, which was always at risk of being used to bypass and fight other EU scientific advisory structures given its secrecy, top level access and institutional weaknesses, the HLG is encouraged to “establish synergies with and add value to existing scientific advisory bodies within the Commission or other bodies, offices or agencies, including those of the Joint Research Centre.” The fact that it will answer to the Research Commissioner and no longer to the President of the European Commission should also help avoid this.
The relationship between the HLG and national academies is not very clear yet; the European Commission says that “the specific details of the coordinating and support action will include a detailed description of the way EU academies will operate under the grant agreement” (the €6 million grant from the Horizon 2020 budget), due to be signed in mid-2016.
why exactly should national academia strive for “a clear and united voice of experts from science, health, technology, and social sciences to help advance the public debate about benefits and risks”?
Both the Commission's description of the HLG's operations and the MOU between national academies insist on the need for consensus decision-making. While the HLG is allowed some flexibility to self-organise, which might leave it free to publish minority opinions when appropriate, the wording used in the MOU is problematic: why exactly should national academia strive for “a clear and united voice of experts from science, health, technology, and social sciences to help advance the public debate about benefits and risks”? The question is made even more important by the reference to the debate on benefits and risks, which is a typically political debate. On a similar note, it seems not foreseen yet how the HLG will communicate the uncertainties it meets in its work, although the way these are described is crucial in shaping the political debates which might follow.
Beyond devil-in-the-details organisational matters, what about citizens?
Overall, the first impression from the new structure is that the Commission has learned from the CSA experience and set up a system which could deliver good scientific advice while being better safeguarded against political interference and lobbying manipulation.
However, with so many crucial details yet to be decided on, the system will need some more time to be properly assessed. That said, some observations can be made about this new SAM, particularly when it comes to something that hasn't been mentioned so far: the role of citizens.
At the beginning of a speech given on September 15, Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, in charge of setting up this new system, underlined the need to enhance trust between citizens and scientists on the one hand, and politicians and scientists on the other hand.
The need to reinforce dialogue and trust between science and society could not be overstated at a time when the increasing submission of public research policies to commercial imperatives, combined with the rise of new technologies with enormous (human, ecological, climatic...) transformative and disruptive potential, give rise to massive fears and distrust towards scientific institutions and sometimes science itself. After so many years of EU projects on Responsible Research and Innovation, it is striking to see that any reference to such notions seems to have disappeared from the new Scientific Advice Mechanism. In 2013 the CSA's Science & Technology Advisory Council argued that the Commission “should invest in more and more inclusive pan-European citizen participation and involvement programs aimed at advising the Commission (and/or the European Parliament) on science and technology issues.” This is entirely missing for now in the new system.
However, it is not too late to take steps to allow citizen participation in the new Scientific Advice Mechanism. We think that two possibilities in particular should be given consideration:
- give citizens and civil society the right to formulate requests to the HLG;
- in cases where requests to the HLG are not be about the state of the scientific literature on a given topic but about suggesting policy options, we propose to add a citizens’ convention 5 to the HLG in order to broaden the spectrum of policy choices.
Corporate Europe Observatory & Fondation Sciences Citoyennes
Illustration: Experts in a book tower, Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
- 1. Correspondence between CEO and DG Research, 17 November 2015
- 2. Idem
- 3. “The Commission may consult the group at any time on any policy field, defining the timespan in which advice is needed. The Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation shall formulate the request for advice to the group and shall transmit advice from the group to the Commission”
- 4. In a 2012 blog, Roger Pielke Jr., author of The Honest Broker (Cambridge, 2007) argues that typical questions for scientific advisers to convey the state of knowledge on an given topic to politicians should be the following: “what do we know? What do we not know? What is controversial?” [...] Key to any such process is two-way communication between policy makers and scientists to clarify the questions that policy makers want answered, and in some cases, the questions that scientists think that they should be asking.”
- 5. The citizens’ convention is a participatory procedure where independent (randomly chosen) and well-informed (extensive and contradictory training) citizens can elaborate a common interest position to enable political officials to have a comprehensive view of, for instance, an innovation.