Ask the agencies

In today’s blog I would like to write about the role of regulatory agencies in providing scientific advice. As usual in Europe, the agency landscape is quite complex and fragmented. This is because there has never been a master plan behind the creation of such agencies, but they rather mushroomed along the way as tasks appeared on the horizon. They are located all over the place, from Lisbon (Portugal) to Helsinki (Finland) and from Dublin (Ireland) to Heraklion (Crete). Usually their seats were the result of political bargaining, each Member State wanting part of the European cake, just to complain afterwards about the uncontrolled proliferation of agencies. Each one of them has its own legal entity, statute and membership, and some of them – like the European Environment Agency – involve also non-EU countries like Switzerland and Turkey. Agencies play a very important in the EU policy ecosystem, similar to their counterparts in the US such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but with the additional dimension that they provide the “glue” between the EU level and the respective national authorities.

The European Environment Agency in Copenhagen
The European Environment Agency in Copenhagen

So let’s first understand who they are. The first and best known group consists of what used to be called Community Agencies. They are now simply called EU Agencies or in eurocrat jargon referred to as Decentralised Agencies. There are currently 34 such agencies, including the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to mention the most popular ones. They include also agencies such as the European Aviation Safety Agency EASA (which certifies that your A380 is airworthy), the European Medicines Agency EMA (which approves the medicines you buy in the pharmacy) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control ECDC (which is the European watchdog for pandemics). Others that may ring a bell include the European Police Office (EUROPOL) or the recently established European Banking Authority. There are also some with funny names such as the European Agency for the Operational Management of large-scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (eu-LISA) (no joke!). Decentralised Agencies fulfil regulatory tasks, such as monitoring, collecting data, and providing certifications and authorizations, but they also deliver quite some science advice. We talk about this in a minute.

To complicate matters, there are also agencies under the Common Security and Defense Policy, notably the European Defence Agency (EDA), the EU Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the EU Satellite Centre (SatCen). Now you might say: wait a minute, doesn’t the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre also have an Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen and provides first class Earth observation capabilities? Well, that’s Europe and a perfect explanation of what is meant by the “community method” versus the “intergovernmental method”, aggravated in this case by the military dimension. You got it.

Then there is a growing number of so-called Executive Agencies. Being based in Brussels or Luxembourg they take care of the day-to-day management of EU funding programmes, in other terms: they do the nitty-gritty work for the Commission. So if you are a partner in an EU research project and in the past you talked to a well-paid policy officer on a permanent contract in DG RTD, now you are likely to talk to a less well-paid case handler on a temporary contract in the Research Executive Agency, doing essentially the same job. This is called modern times. In any case without the working bees at the Executive Agencies the whole EU funding system would not work.

Finally, there are two agencies supporting the EURATOM Treaty, one on nuclear fission and one on nuclear fusion. And then there is the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) which is also considered an agency, but simply didn’t fit into any other box. We will talk about it on a different occasion.

Oh, and not to forget: There is also the European Space Agency (ESA), which is probably the best known agency of all. But contrary to public belief, it is no agency and has nothing to do with all of the above – after all this is Europe, so why should it be easy to understand? But this is a different story and would merit a blog on its own.

Now coming back on the issue of science advice: One thing that is common to all agencies is that they have loads of expertise. This is because for issuing certificates and authorizations you need top experts who really understand the matter – and the agencies are much more flexible than the Commission in recruiting these. How does this expertise make its way into European legislation? There are different ways. If you are lucky, it’s part of your mandate. The European Food Safety Authority for instance, has a clear mandate and clear procedures to carry out scientific assessments e.g. before food stuff is introduced on the European market or when new evidence indicates concern about those that are already authorized. If you are not so lucky, then the process is less straight-forward and the expertise makes its way to Brussels on a more ad-hoc basis.

efsajournal-600x270
EFSA is currently chairing the EU Agencies Network on Scientific Advice

In the past agencies have often been caught in turf wars between Commission DGs (things got better in the meantime). So DG Environment would go to “its” agency in Copenhagen and receive evidence that was possibly contradicting the evidence DG Health and Food Safety got from “its” agency in Parma on the same matter. To avoid this from happening again, a number of Agencies has made a very smart move: They established the EU Agencies Network on Scientific Advice (EU-ANSA), which consists of the Chief Scientists (or their equivalents) of those agencies in which science plays a major role. The network serves to discuss common issues and to share best practices, but also to ensure a more teamed up response from the agencies to requests from the European Institutions. Recently, EU-ANSA has published a fantastic piece of work portraying all the science that is going on in its member agencies. The report can be downloaded here.

The more complex the agency landscape gets, the more important it is that the agencies speak with one voice. The EU should use the scientific and technical expertise residing in the agencies much more often.

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