Replacing the Chief Scientific Adviser
The post of European Chief Scientific Adviser was abolished last week. What does this mean for evidence-based policy making?
The position of CSA was originally announced by former European Commission president Barroso in 2009 and first filled in December 2011. The purpose of the role was to advise on novel science, technology and innovation issues, as well as to chair the president's Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC).
The role was made redundant last week by the new EC president, Jean-Claude Juncker, along with BEPA, the Bureau of European Policy Advisers.
Much of the scientific community has interpreted this as a snub to science itself. Many were particularly surprised given that Juncker had previously indicated to MEPs that he would keep the position, in response to strong endorsement from several scientists.
Several also thought Juncker's timing especially cynical, with the announcement being quietly slipped out whilst attention was on the European Space Agency's astounding Rosetta mission - a 'good day to bury bad news', perhaps.
It is true that the former incumbent, Prof. Anne Glover, was not universally popular; the Green lobby, in particular, disliked her stance on GM organisms, and criticised the lack of transparency around her advice. Partly as a consequence, Glover is also said to have had an uneasy relationship with several national agriculture ministries.
However, much of the difficulty was undoubtedly structural: Glover's office was massively under-resourced, leaving no spare capacity for the kind of relationship-building that was obviously required.
So where does this leave European policy makers?
Nesta has frequently argued in favour of more evidence-based policy-making (and with initiatives like the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the Innovation Growth Lab, is attempting to advance experimental methods into policy areas where this has traditionally been absent).
If Juncker's move were to signal a downgrading of the value of evidence in the EC's decision making, then it would be deeply worryingly. In the complex policy environment of Brussels, where many lobbying groups are especially active, the need for someone to to provide impartial scientific advice, regardless of popular opinion, should be indisputable.
Juncker's office claims that this is not the case, and that he remains committed to the importance of independent scientific advice. But he will need to move quickly to fill the gap left by the CSA.
One option is to revamp the European Joint Research Centre.
In theory, it is already part of the JRC's role to provide in-house scientific advice to the Commission. In practice, the JRC has become more like a centrally-funded research university, which is as active in undertaking primary research as in providing advice to politicians.
Nevertheless, if Juncker is to retain the trust of scientists across Europe, he could clearly signal several things:
Firstly, he could publicly re-affirm the importance of evidence-based policy and recognise that this means defending some controversial decisions against special-interest groups.
Secondly, he could promote the visibility and role of JRC as an alternative to the STAC, and pay particular attention to the mechanisms by which the JRC can proactively advise commissioners. One of the criticisms of the former CSA's role was that there was simply insufficient contact between the CSA and the EC president.
Thirdly, the JRC could be given a specific remit of liaising with the various other EU agencies such as the European Medicine Agency, European Food Safety Authority, European Chemicals Agency, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and so on, in order to ensure these organisations are properly heard.
Fourthly, in the interests of impartiality, transparency and scientific scrutiny, the advice given could typically be made public. This will help ensure that it is based on the weight of scientific evidence, and backed (or challenged) by the broader scientific community.
Fifth, he could reconsider the JRC's reporting line - which currently sits rather oddly under Tibor Navracsis, the commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship - so as to ensure direct, unfiltered access to the relevant expertise.
Scientific innovation has long been a major driver of European prosperity, but many innovations can be stifled by inappropriate policy. Whether one is talking of digital startups and data protection, or the rules governing GMOs or nanotech, Europe needs enlightened politicians who understand the latest, impartial, scientific advice. The Commission needs to be equipped to deliver this.
Image from Rock Cohen under creative commons licence.