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When citizens speak up for evidence, politicians listen

The public is ready to hold MEPs to account for whether they use evidence in policy-making, says Sofie Vanthournout.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as its word of the year. It was defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

The term post-truth suggests that the public is unwilling to engage with the evidence related to complex policy issues. There’s a great risk in giving in to this kind of thinking. It might lead politicians to believe that they don’t need to explain their reasoning and that they don’t need to be accountable.

A democracy where citizens can’t make use of expertise, facts and figures to challenge political claims is not a true democracy. And if MEPs were to start treating EU citizens as if they don’t care about the truth or accountability, it would entrench the belief among citizens that the EU is undemocratic and does not defend their interests. This would turn back the inroads we’ve all made towards open, transparent, evidence-based policymaking.

So when concerned citizens from all over Europe came to Sense about Science, telling us that they do care about evidence and asking us what they could do, we decided to help them make their voices heard.

On 21 June, we took 100 of them to the European Parliament, so that they could tell their representatives in Brussels directly why they don’t want politicians to ignore the public values of truthfulness and accountability. These citizens challenged the caricature of the public as uninterested in sound policy and collectively asked their policymakers to use evidence in the decisions they make.

Out of the 100, 16 citizens (pictured) shared their personal stories during the visit and explained why they needed good evidence. Among them were an Italian chef who wanted evidence on food safety, a Bulgarian surfer searching for data on water pollution, and a Danish hunter who was looking for evidence on sustainable hunting.

As these examples show, the stories were diverse and presented a range of opinions. But they were united in their belief that evidence is vital to the understanding, accountability and scrutiny of EU policy. The participants in our event hope to inspire their decision-makers to strive for the better use of evidence in public life.

And politicians listened. A cross-party group of MEPs hosted the event: the Italian Marco Affronte, a member of the Greens-European Free Alliance parliamentary group, the UK Conservative Julie Girling, the Portuguese socialist Ricardo Serrão Santos and Jan Huitema from the Netherlands, who sits with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group.

Carlos Moedas, the commissioner for research, science and innovation, and more than 20 MEPs, including Eva Kaili, the chair of the parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment panel, and vice-president Mairead McGuinness were in the room to hear the citizens. They witnessed a very rare event in Brussels: citizens talking face-to-face with politicians about how they want to be governed and what they expect from their representatives.

The citizens’ personal pleas had a huge impact. All the politicians present acknowledged the need for better use and communication of evidence in EU policy. McGuinness called the event one of the best she has been to: “because of the clarity of your presentations, because of the fact that as citizens you came here and gave your time and energy to this event.”

Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the Commission, told us: “While we aspire to make more and better use of science internally, I am glad that there are initiatives like Sense about Science, which are fighting for evidence-based policymaking from the outside and doing so by facilitating the direct involvement of citizens.”

The politicians’ positive responses were an encouraging start, but we’re now asking them to make a strong, long-term commitment. Citizens want representatives who are responsive to their questions and who will scrutinise the evidence behind policies on their behalf.

In order to monitor which MEPs are taking up this role as evidence hunters, Sense about Science is putting together a citizens’ committee. In a year’s time it will publish a review of the best and worst of MEPs’ efforts on evidence-led policy.

Sense about Science has heard from many more people who believe that evidence matters. By listening to what citizens are calling for and insisting on the use of evidence, politicians have a real chance to create a stronger and more inclusive EU.

Sofie Vanthournout is the director of Sense about Science EU, an independent campaigning charity that monitors the use and abuse of scientific evidence in EU policy.

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This article also appeared in Research Europe