Putting Science at the Heart of European Policy

One year ago, the incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker shocked the scientific world by scrapping the post of Chief Scientific Advisor. This week, the Commission made amends by launching a well-considered Scientific Advisory Mechanism (SAM) that not only puts science back at the heart of policy, but that does so in a much more structured and robust way than conferring such responsibility on a single individual. The SAM has two independent strands: an advisory group of seven scientists, and funding through the Horizon 2020 programme for national academies and learned societies to network and collaborate on policy issues. Both are backed up by a secretariat at Commission headquarters in Brussels.

When Mr Juncker scrapped the role of Chief Scientific Advisor, it was against a backdrop of sometimes-vitriolic attacks on the incumbent, Anne Glover, due to her outspoken views on GMOs. Mr Juncker's move was seen by some as simply giving in to a powerful lobby group, but the reality was rather more subtle. The Chief Scientific Advisor post was part of a larger advisor's bureau whose functions have been reorganized over the last year: Mr Juncker's Commission chose to change the way the Commission receives advice on a large range of issues, not only science.

At the time Mr Juncker took office, I wrote to him, along with my fellow EIROforum Directors-General, advising him to maintain a mechanism for independent and impartial scientific advice. I pointed out in this column that scientific evidence is not an option in policy making, and suggested that some kind of body, such as the one announced this week, might offer a more structured and robust mechanism than a single advisor. I am very pleased that the Commission shares this view, all the more so since I have the privilege of being one of the first to serve on the Commission's new science advisory group.

Science is essential to policy. Today, science permeates every aspect of modern life, and it is to science that we must turn when we address the major societal issues facing the world and shaping our future. Issues such as climate, energy, food and water are challenging the way we inhabit and share this planet. They all present major hurdles to overcome, and none can be resolved by policy alone. To find a sustainable solution for each of them requires science. And for policy makers to steer the right course, they need access to clear, level headed advice on subjects that frequently elicit an emotional response - subjects such as GMOs, for example. Whatever we may feel about GMOs, they deserve a rational, evidence-based debate in the policy arena because whatever policies we may develop, it's a fact that we are already struggling to feed a growing population, and it's a fact that current agricultural practices are not sustainable.

When Mr Juncker announced that he was doing away with the role Chief Scientific Advisor, it seemed inconceivable to me that he would not replace the post with a new mechanism, and I said that I looked forward to seeing how he proposed to keep science at the centre of policy. One year on, I have to say that I like what I see, and am very much looking forward to meeting and working with my fellow members of the Commission's new science advisory group when we hold our first meeting in January.