Go back

Citizens’ initiatives spark evidence debate

Science groups split on proposal to vet initiatives

Some scientific leaders have proposed that European Citizens’ Initiatives be vetted to ensure that they are consistent with the available scientific evidence before they are presented to the public—but others have said that this would defeat their democratic purpose.

The European Commission is required to consider addressing any ECI that attracts 1 million signatures, including several thousand names from each of seven EU member states. It is carrying out a review of the ECI process that is due to be completed in 2015.

Some science groups are alarmed that several successful ECIs—including one that opposes EU funding for embryonic stem cell research and another that would ban animal experimentation where an alternative is possible—are implicitly hostile to science. An early review of each ECI proposal ensures that it is consistent with the “values of the EU”, and some lobbyists want the review to ensure that the proposal is consistent with the available scientific evidence as well.

The latest ECI to be registered, Stop Vivisection, has drawn criticism from scientists for what they regard as its one-sided viewpoint. According to Emma Sanchez, a press officer for the European Animal Research Association, the wording of the ECI ignores the proven role of animal testing in medical research.

Kurt Deketelaere, the secretary-general of Leru, the League of European Research Universities, claims that groups are “abusing” the ECI system by putting forward “misleading and demagogic proposals” because there is no requirement for them to look at their ECIs from a scientific viewpoint.

Leru is pushing for more scientific evidence to be included in ECI proposals. Deketelaere, who is already in talks with the European Parliament about ECI reform, has called for proposals to be vetted for scientific accuracy before they are published for members of the public to sign. “Although we are in favour of the ECIs as a policy tool, we are seeing a number of propo­sals popping up with very worrying content,” he says.

But other science groups have questioned whether such vetting is consistent with the idea of giving citizens a voice through ECIs. Peter Tindemans, the secretary-general of Euroscience, a grass-roots scientists’ group, says it would be wrong to make ECI success contingent on scientific merit.

“Science is full of uncertainties,” he says. “There should not be a gate at the beginning of the process whereby science says what is fine or not. It is the right of citizens to come up with their opinions.”

Tindemans is backed by Carsten Berg, the coordinator of the ECI Campaign, which aims to make the process easier. “The ECI is not an element of direct democracy, but participatory democracy,” Berg says. “It is about having a debate, and it is legitimate to have a discussion on stem cell research or animal testing.”

ECIs were introduced in 2012 as part of the Lisbon Treaty, to give European citizens more of a say in what the EU should do and which problems it should address. More than 20 initiatives have been registered, covering issues such as media freedom and quality of education.

So far, none of the ECIs intended to change scientific practice has led to policy change. Stop Vivisection, the Right2Water campaign for cheap drinking water and the One of Us movement against stem cell research are the first three ECIs to have been registered and to have collected enough signatures. Once ECIs have completed these steps, the Commission holds hearings at the Parliament to see whether it can develop policy proposals for them. One of Us was rejected after its hearing, as stem cell regulation in the EU had only just been revised.

If the Commission does decide to overhaul the process, it could opt for less restrictive options such as offering more advice to citizens about what makes an initiative sensible and practical, says Luis Bouza, a constitution scholar at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. Restricting ECIs by favouring science would be difficult to accept, Bouza says. “Citizens are not scientists, and can have different opinions.” 

This article also appeared in Research Europe