Go back

Commission’s plan for science advice called into question

Researchers and lobby groups have expressed doubts about the European Commission’s planned approach to receiving high-level scientific advice, following confirmation that a seven-strong advisory panel is to be set up.

On 13 May, the Commission announced that the group would be established by the autumn, ending a lengthy debate on how the institution intended to replace its chief scientific adviser (CSA). But critics say the proposed solution—to link the group to the national academies and the Joint Research Centre through a secretariat in the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation—could be fraught with difficulty.

“I see two major problems: a lack of time and direct interaction with president Jean-Claude Juncker, and the fact that academies don’t have a reputation as a rapid-reaction force,” says Peter Tindemans, the secretary-general of the scientists’ lobby group Euroscience.

“The bottom line here is that there is wonderful potential, but also a lot of risk,” says Roger Pielke, a science policy specialist at the University of Colorado who blogged a detailed critique of the plan on 13 May.

Pielke’s major concern is whether the group can succeed in providing scientific evidence for issues such as fracking, genetically modified crops and endocrine-
disrupting chemicals, given that its 26-strong secretariat will be placed in the directorate that plans research spending. “The model appears to confuse ‘science for policy’ with ‘policy for science’,” says Pielke.

At a press conference, the French biologist Jules Hoffmann said he welcomed the Commission’s plan because it would allow scientists to voice “opinions and fears” about Horizon 2020 priorities. But James Wilsdon, a science policy specialist from the University of Sussex, says: “It would be inappropriate for this group to become engaged in that side of science policy.”

Pielke says there is some evidence that the group has been established to placate science groups, particularly in the UK, following the abolition of Anne Glover’s CSA position in November. “If it is being proposed as a solution to a political problem then I suspect that the Commission is setting itself up again for problems down the road,” he says. “This was the dynamic that doomed the CSA office: establishing that office seemed more important than actually using it.”

However, Wilsdon says he is “cautiously optimistic” about the plan. “There is no perfect structure, but I think a lot of thought has gone into this—and lessons have been learned from Glover’s experience,” he says.

This article also appeared in Research Europe