Science and Politics

Scientific advice for politics

The European way

The seven members of the High Level Group of SAM. Image credit: SAM, European Commission
By Michele Catanzaro

Politics is not an exact science: moral choices, traditions, communication and many other aspects play important roles. But working on politics without caring for scientific evidence is almost certainly a recipe for failure. In the last few years, the European Union has struggled to find its own, formal model for conveying scholarly knowledge in its policies. After a tangled attempt to concentrate this task into a single Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA), the Commission opted in 2015 for a much more complex Scientific Advisory Mechanism (SAM). The High Level Group at the top of the mechanism was appointed in November 2015. The seven prominent scholars that form the committee discuss their first year and a half of work in a debate at the European Conference for Science Journalists, taking place in June in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“I think it’s too early [to judge the impact of SAM]. It is still working out where it can contribute. The mechanism has good people on it, but it needs to be given some time,” says Carthage Smith, head of the secretary for the Global Science Forum of the OECD, who has been working on comparing different advice mechanisms.

The basic pieces

The group is supported by a secretariat composed of around 20 academics with a wide range of backgrounds, working in Brussels at DG Research and Innovation. It is also supported by SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy from European Academies), an organisation composed of more than 100 European science academies.

“We have meetings with the commissioners who are willing to pose questions to us. And we are now coming up with our own proposals of topics we would like to tackle in the near future. It is meant to be a two-way street,” explains Rolf Heuer, former Director-General of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, and chair of SAM. So far, commissioners working on climate, health and research have posed questions to the committee, according to Heuer.

“We have several examples that our notes are taken seriously and used in the preparation of regulations, etc.,” Heuer adds. For example, SAM’s opinion paper on how to close the gap between test measurements and real-life measurements of CO2 emitted by cars is being used in the preparation of the Commission’s regulatory proposals that should be put forward after 2020, according to Heuer. SAM has also published work on glyphosate, cybersecurity and agricultural biotechnology.

“We rely on reports and publications, preferably peer-reviewed, grey if necessary,” says Pearl Dykstra, a sociologist at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands and member of the Committee, on the basic components of SAM. A lot of the bibliographic work is carried out by the secretariat. Beyond that, “for every topic, we meet with people at SAPEA and ask them what they can do for us: it’s amazing to see how constructive the academy members are,” Dykstra adds. “At the end, we present our results to stakeholder workshops; it’s not a matter of changing our ideas, but of receiving feedback,” she explains.

The members of the committee work for free (except for reimbursement of expenses) and on a part-time basis (the equivalent of 40 days per year). The key to their independence is transparency, say both Heuer and Dykstra. “Everything we read can be seen on our website, everything we do and the people we meet can be monitored, and we are open about potential conflict of interest,” Dykstra explains. Smith agrees that transparency is the main safeguard in this kind of work.

Too much complexity?

The complexity of SAM as compared to the simple CSA model has sparked criticism since its proposal. “A lot of the format has to do with cultural features. The CSA works well in countries with a relation to the British culture of administration and legal system. In other countries, like Germany, which is very federal, you would not be able to identify a single science advisor,” says Smith. “The Commission tried the CSA model, and it’s clear it did not work because of expectations of democracy and inclusiveness. The fact is, a more representative and accountable mechanism [like SAM] is not necessarily the most efficient one,” he continues.

“When seven come together unanimously than it’s much stronger than if only one person signs. I like very much that we are more than one person. If you are one it’s relatively easy to attack you,” Heuer replies. “We don’t aim to represent all the disciplines, nor all the countries: we are elected not as representatives, but based on our expertise,” adds Dykstra. The High Level Group was nominated by a search committee composed by experts, taking into account proposals by science academies and learned societies.

Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland and CSA to the Government of Ireland, highlights some of the advantages of being an individual advisor. “Informal relationships are very important. I often have trusted discussion with ministers and prime ministers,” he explains. Ferguson considers part of his CSA role as advocating for science and carrying out science diplomacy, that is, “promoting Irish scientific research to promote Ireland.”

Dykstra points out that SAM is very different in this respect. “Our role is more formal advice; it’s informal at the starting point, when we develop what questions should be addressed,” she says. “We are doing science for policy, not policy for science; we are not there to be advocates for science funding.”

Smith points out that the complexity of SAM may impair its action in case of emergencies because the reaction time of seven people will inevitably be longer than one. “I agree that we still don’t have a mechanism [that is] quick enough in such cases,” Heuer admits. “However, we plan to set up a list of people we can address to get a quick response in case of a crisis.”

Another critical issue is the role SAM will play with respect to the other mechanisms the Commission already has to get science into policy making. “The Commission has mechanisms like the Joint Research Centre, the Emergency Response Coordination Mechanism, or the mechanisms for health and food issues of the DG Health. How all those things fit together with SAM and what SAM will add to it is to be seen,” says Smith.

Heuer is not concerned that this heterogeneity may bring conflicting results and advice. “I am not worried as long as we can explain why we have different opinions,” he says. And he is adamant on a specific point: “The main difference is that those are internal bodies [to the Commission], while we are an independent body. I am not saying at all that those other institutions are tweaking the results, but we are very strict with our total independence in the way we publish our results,” he concludes.