Europe Must Keep Science at the Heart of Policy Making

For the European Commission to ignore science in its policymaking would be nothing short of catastrophic, as many have said. However, at this stage, I would like to remain cautiously optimistic.
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Much has been said in the media and in the scientific community about the incoming European Commission President's decision not to renew the role of Chief Scientific Advisor. Taken at face value, that would certainly be a backward step. For the Commission to ignore science in its policymaking would be nothing short of catastrophic, as many have said. However, at this stage, I would like to remain cautiously optimistic.

Not renewing the role of Chief Scientific Advisor is part of a larger reorganization of the way in which the Commission seeks to ensure that it has impartial advice on issues influencing policy. What Mr Juncker has done does not - yet - equate to removing science from the policy agenda. He has chosen to close the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, of which the Chief Scientific Advisor was a part, and replace it with a new European Political Strategy Centre that will advise the Commission on economics, social affairs, sustainable development, foreign affairs, institutions and communications: many of which, curiously, are underpinned by science. What Mr Juncker has not yet said is how the Commission will receive its scientific advice, and that is something I am eagerly waiting to hear.

I am confident that Mr Juncker will keep science at the centre of policy. After all, one area that the Commission has been consistently clear about is the role of science in maintaining Europe's competitiveness, as witnessed by the importance and success of the Framework programmes. With such a strong commitment to science, the Commission has a clear need to maintain a mechanism for receiving impartial scientific advice. And with his commitment to sustainable development through the European Political Strategy Centre, Mr Juncker is also surely aware that science has a central role in addressing many of the major challenges facing Europe and the world today. Climate change, food security and energy supply, to name but three, are all key to development, and all require scientific input to policy making at the highest level if we are to find sustainable solutions.

The post of Chief Scientific Advisor was established by President Barroso as his way of having independent and impartial scientific advice. It was a development that I strongly approved of, and indeed I, along with the heads of all of Europe's intergovernmental research organizations, wrote to Mr Juncker urging that he retain the post. However, President Barroso's approach is not the only way, and Mr Juncker has chosen a different route.

Since CERN became an Observer at the United Nations, I have come to know better the workings of that organization, and in particular how it integrates science into policy. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon takes the role of science very seriously. He has visited CERN on more than one occasion, and he played a very active part at the CERN 60th anniversary event on science for peace and development at UN HQ in New York in October. His route to ensuring independent and impartial scientific input to UN policy is through a Scientific Advisory Board consisting of 26 leading scientists from around the world. Perhaps this is a model that Mr Juncker should consider?

It is a model that could be more robust against the kind of criticism levelled at the office of Chief Scientific Advisor. As Mr Juncker prepared to take office, debate focussed on the personality of the Advisor, Anne Glover, rather than the role she fulfilled. Why? I believe it is simply because Professor Glover spoke up robustly. I consider it vital that a person appointed to advise on science have the liberty to form an opinion and express it clearly, and that is exactly what Professor Glover did. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the debate was hi-jacked to focus on the views of the individual rather than the necessity of the role. The point I'd like to make here is that if Mr Juncker does not replace the function of Chief Scientific Advisor, then the hi-jack will have succeeded, and it will have done us all a great disservice. Scientific evidence is not an option in policy-making, it is a necessity. It is about evidence based decision making, and an advisory body of leading scientists might be better placed to provide such input, while being more difficult to undermine than one individual scientific advisor.

As scientists, we must continue to encourage Mr Juncker to keep science at the centre of policy, and I look forward to seeing how he proposes to achieve that.

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