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Commission ponders advisory structure

Task force under development to replace Glover’s role

The European Commission is gradually working towards an arrangement for science advice that its officials hope will fend off criticism of its approach to evidence-based policy.

In the coming weeks, the Commission is expected to announce a plan to establish a small task force that will provide scientific expertise to president Jean-Claude Juncker and his commissioners. The task force is expected to work closely with the Joint Research Centre—the Commission’s own research laboratory— and with Europe’s national academies.

But the Commission has already delayed the announcement of its plan, as it grapples with details such as where in the Brussels bureaucracy to place the panel’s secretariat. And with six months having passed since the departure of Anne Glover, the Scottish biologist who served as chief scientific adviser (CSA) to the previous president José Manuel Barroso, pressure is growing on the Commission to act.

“I really do hope that they are taking the chance to put something in place that’s good—a state-of-the-art advisory panel that becomes a model for others to emulate,” says James Wilsdon, a science policy specialist at the University of Sussex in the UK. Wilsdon ran an event in Brussels on 27 April to mark the publication of a collection of essays on options for scientific advice. “They have an opportunity to help shape the global debate on science advice, and I hope they take it because they haven’t handled it as effectively as they could have done so far,” he says. 

Discussion at the event centred on the review of science advice launched by the Commission after Glover’s departure. António Vicente, a senior aide to the research commissioner Carlos Moedas, said: “I doubt we will get a chief scientific adviser, but we will get a good system. To suggest that without that single person, science will stop having an impact, is quite preposterous.”

The advisory structure is most likely to be a semi-autonomous unit inside the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, observers say. “The way we structure the advisory system will determine precisely what weight we give it,” said Robert Madelin, the head of the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology.

The risk of placing it within a single directorate-general is that other commissioners will ignore it. But this could happen anyway: even Glover, who was at the top of the tree next to the president, had problems making herself heard. “In a structure like that, wherever you put anything you have a dilemma of silo-ism,” Wilsdon says. “There is no perfect structural solution.”

Attendees welcomed the idea that science academies could be officially involved in the task force, probably through the European Academies Science Advisory Council, although concerns were raised that the normally staid academies may have difficulty responding rapidly to requests for input. “There is no point giving advice long after the need has passed, or so far in advance that policymakers are unable or unwilling to act on it,” said Ian Chubb, the CSA of Australia.

The Commission should also include the social sciences and humanities, as well as the hard sciences, suggested Ulrike Felt, a science policy researcher at the University of Vienna.

There was also discussion about how the Commission would recruit panel members, who may need to have a personal relationship with Juncker or his aides while being seen to be authoritative and independent. “The process of selection should be open to all and treated as a public appointment process,” says Wilsdon. “The Commission must appoint people on merit.”

The Commission’s failure to produce a plan thus far is being read by some as a lack of interest. “It’s not top of the list for president Juncker,” says Wilsdon. But Vicente says the plan will be published before the summer and defended the Commission’s schedule. “This is fundamentally an organisational problem, not an existential problem,” he says. “Juncker never doubted the need for independent science advice.”

This article also appeared in Research Europe