SAM and how it compares to Uncle Sam

As my fellowship at the University of Colorado at Boulder is coming to an end, I am also approaching the end of my science & policy blog, in which over the past weeks I tried to highlight a variety of issues in the relationship between science and policy-making. Following my return I will have the privilege to work for the new unit which is coordinating the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM), led by my colleague Johannes Klumpers in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. When joining this new team I hope to feed in the experiences made in the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the office of the former Chief Scientific Adviser as well as those of my stay here in the US, which has kindly been sponsored by the Commission’s EU Fellowship Programme.

Three weeks ago the European Commission announced the composition of the new High-level Group of Scientific Advisors, which will replace both the former Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and the President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) existing in the previous Commission. The selection panel has made an excellent choice in appointing seven outstanding scientists, including inter alia outgoing CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer, the Chief Scientist of the UK Met Office Julia Slingo and renowned mathematician Cédric Villani (who also served on the previous STAC panel).

The members of the European Commission’s new High-level Group of Scientific Advisors

The new group will provide independent scientific advice on specific policy issues where such advice is critical to the development of Union policies or legislation, identifying the most important and relevant evidence and empirical findings that can support decision-making on the specified policy issues, including an assessment of the robustness and limitations of the evidence and empirical findings. The panel is also supposed to identify policy issues where independent scientific advice is needed, and it will provide recommendations for improving the overall interaction between Commission policy-making processes and independent scientific advice. The high-level panel will advise the College of the Commissioners, thus having a broader task than the related advisory bodies in the previous Commission which were targeted at the President only. Also, it has a clear mandate laid down in a Commission Decision and can count on the necessary resources as well as a support unit to do its job. These are great improvements compared to the previous Commission and show the firm commitment of the European Commission to independent scientific advice.

The US counterpart of the EU’s High-level Group of Scientific Advisors is the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST). PCAST supports the US government with policy recommendations in all areas of science, technology, and innovation – this includes both science for policy, and policy for science. PCAST has 20 members in total, representing a wide range of scientific disciplines, from both academia and industry, including, for instance, Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt and Nobel Prize Winner Mario Molina. PCAST meets 6-8 times per year and is co-chaired by one of its members and the Director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy John Holdren (who at the same time serves as the President’s personal Scientific Advisor). Its meetings are public and webcasted, and all meeting documents – including verbal transcripts of the sessions – are published online. PCAST regularly invites the scientific community and the wider public to submit evidence on a given subject. Depending on the matter, external experts are invited for presentations, and citizens are allowed to submit oral or written comments and, to a limited extent, attend meetings. PCAST lays down its recommendations in reports (usually 4-6 per year), targeting key science policy issues such as cybersecurity, big data, or antibiotic resistance. The overall remit of PCAST is similar to the SAM Panel and it acts on request of the President or his Science Advisor (see Executive Order 13539).

The members of the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) – Source: White House

Another important leg of the Commission’s new Scientific Advice Mechanism is a strategic cooperation with the academies of science in Europe, which are among the most dynamically evolving players in the EU’s science advisory system. A significant difference to the US system is that in the European case we talk about more than 100 national and European academies of natural sciences, arts and letters, engineering, and medicine. In past years the academies have significantly enhanced their cooperation at the European level through their European roof organizations, namely the European Academies Science Advisory Council EASAC (representing the national academies of science), All European Academies ALLEA (representing national and European-wide science academies, including those of arts and letters), the European Council of Academies of Applied Sciences, Technologies and Engineering EURO-CASE (representing the national academies of engineering), and the Federation of European Academies of Medicine FEAM (representing national academies of medicine). This group is complemented by Academia Europaea, the European-wide Academy of Sciences.

While the support provided by the academies – e.g. via the delivery of policy reports or expert opinions – has been largely pro bono in the past, the collaboration with the Commission’s new Scientific Advice Mechanism will put this support on a new footing, not only by providing financial resources to the academies through the Horizon 2020 Programme, but also by a better synchronization of the science and policy cycles, ensuring that relevant reports are delivered in a much more targeted and timely manner, including on explicit request of the Commission. The cooperation with the academies will enable the Commission to harness the knowledge of thousands of eminent scientists across the continent.

In this context it is important to remind that the national academies of science are well respected and trusted organizations in the Member States, thanks to their independence, rigorous peer review processes, and cultural heritage. It is therefore hoped that the direct involvement of the national academies in the science advisory system at EU level, besides improving the evidence base, will also enhance the acceptance of European policy solutions at the national level, considering that the European Council does not have a science service, contrary to the European Commission and the European Parliament.

It is expected that through this collaboration the science academies will assume a role similar to the US National Academy of Sciences in the American science advisory system – in fact, the founding charter of the US academy, signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, specifically requested the members already at that time to serve the government on scientific and related technical problems. Today the National Academy of Sciences (together with its spin-offs, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine) is a key player providing US policy-makers with a common view of the scientific community on relevant policy issues, e.g. through the delivery of policy reports as well as through briefings for Congress.

With the Scientific Advice Mechanism the European Commission is opening a new page in science advice in Europe and I feel honoured of having the opportunity to contribute to this exciting adventure, which will be followed with interest by the science policy community around the world.

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