Farewell to Boulder

This week my fellowship here in Boulder is coming to an end, and therefore I am going to close also my personal science & policy blog, in which I reflected over the past four months on issues related to the science-policy interface. I would like to use the opportunity to say thank you to the many people who made my stay in Colorado possible and so enjoyable.

First and foremost, I want to thank the EU Fellowship Programme, which funded my stay here in Boulder, giving me the opportunity to get to know the US system better, while helping me to promote the EU to our American friends. I also thank the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) for allowing me to take part in the programme and the EU Delegation in Washington for staying in touch. I will feed the experiences gained back into the European Commission, at first instance in my new job in the Scientific Advice Mechanism Unit in DG Research and Innovation.

Second, I would like to thank all the fantastic people here at the Center for Science & Technology Policy Research – or “Grandview” as they call it internally, both after the street in which the center is located and after the grand view it has on Boulder’s iconic Flatirons. Roger Pielke jr. has done a great job in creating an intellectually stimulating environment (and in introducing my kids to Halloween habits as he happens to live in the neighborhood with the highest candy density of Boulder). Also the support staff over here, Bobbie, Ami and Robin, have always been helpful in sorting out issues as did the people working in the International Department of the University of Colorado. Likewise, I thank all the wonderful people I met here and with whom I had stimulating discussions, either at the university or at the federal institutes located in Boulder (UCAR, NOAA, NIST) and Golden (NREL). Among the many I just want to mention here Ross Coriotis, former senior science fellow in the State Department, who attended many of my lectures and provided a lot of insights into US politics and mindsets.

Bidding farewell to the snowy Flatirons

Third, I want to thank the Colorado EU Center of Excellence, led by its Scientific Director Martin Rhodes and its Executive Director Felicia Martinez Naranjo, who have supported me throughout my fellowship and brokered a number of speaking and lecturing opportunities in Boulder, Denver and Laramie/Wyoming (where I was happy to meet my former Ispra colleague Robert Field). This included a panel at an energy & climate conference at the University of Denver chaired by the former Governor of Colorado Bill Ritter ahead of the Paris Climate Conference.

Finally, I would like to thank you, the readers of my personal blog, for having read my posts with which I hope to have triggered some thinking around the science-policy relationship – a relationship that is more crucial than ever in these challenging times. I want to reiterate once again that all articles on my blog reflect my personal thoughts only, based on many years of experience in the “twilight zone” between science and policy. I hope that they helped a bit to advance the “science of science advice” and give insights to practitioners working in the field. I offer my apologies in case I stepped on anybody’s toes, either advertently or inadvertently.

I am returning to “good old Europe” now, which has changed significantly since I left it, with terrorism, the refugee crisis and populist movements putting the European project under strain. At the same time, the recent conclusion of the Paris climate agreement – a masterpiece of European and in particular French diplomacy  – offers hope for all of us, showing that it is indeed worth going the extra mile of communicating scientific evidence to policy-makers, even if sometimes political decisions take longer in the making than scientists would like to. It is certainly no surprise that this success was only possible when Europe and the US finally teamed up on climate action, striking together for a better world, thus demonstrating the value of the Trans-Atlantic partnership. Count me in as an ambassador for it.

I wish everybody a merry Christmas and a successful year 2016!

Jan Marco Müller


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.

When science gets messed up with politics

Well-intended scientific support being messed up in political debate is a very common pitfall in the science-policy relationship. A perfect example, worth being mentioned in the teaching books, is the European Ecodesign Directive. That’s why I would like to write today about this very instructive story.

To understand it, we need to go back to the year 2008. Europe was about to host the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and in the run-up to it wanted to make an ambitious pledge for climate action. So European leaders agreed on what became known as the “20-20-20” targets, that is to reach 20% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels, 20% share of renewables in electricity generation, and 20% less energy consumption compared to 1990, all of this to be reached by 2020. 20-20-20 by 2020, this sounds obviously like an easy-to-communicate political target, not a scientific one. On a side note, the EU is on an excellent track to reach these targets, having overshot the emission reduction target already last year, while being on the right path with the renewables target. The energy efficiency target – in other words: decoupling energy consumption from economic growth – seems more difficult to reach by 2020 and this is precisely the target I want to talk about in the following.

Once the targets were adopted by the Heads of Government, the Commission had to come up with smart proposals on how to reach them. One of the most effective ways to reduce energy consumption is to insulate houses, i.e. to retrofit the existing building stock, given that 75% of the buildings in the EU are considered not to be energy-efficient. However, this is not a task to be carried out at the EU level. The EU might help by setting up funding programmes, but according to the subsidiarity principle the insulation of houses is something to be dealt with at local level. So what else could the EU do?

2000px-Energy_label_en.svgEnhancing the energy efficiency of household appliances quickly came up as an area in which the EU could act. Why? Because if each Member State would start coming up with different energy efficiency targets for industrial products, this would distort and fragment the common market. And one of the Commission’s key tasks is to be a guardian of the common market, so the need for action at the European level was evident. In addition, household applicances contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, the Commission came up with the proposal for an Ecodesign Directive, which was adopted by the European Parliament and the European Council in autumn 2009 with the exact title “Directive 2009/125/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 October 2009 establishing a framework for the setting of ecodesign requirements for energy-related products”. It is important to highlight that the majority of the directly elected Members of the European Parliament as well as every single government of the EU Member States agreed to this Directive.

The Directive put a number of tasks on the European Commission, namely to organize a process in which for different groups of household appliances energy efficiency targets would be developed, with the aim to reach the agreed political goal of reducing energy consumption by 20% by 2020. In particular, Article 15 (4) of the Directive asked the Commission to come up with “implementing measures”, to be laid down as EU regulations, for which the Commission should

  • consider the life cycle of the product and all its significant environmental aspects, inter alia, energy efficiency.
  • carry out an assessment, which shall consider the impact on the environment, consumers and manufacturers, including SMEs, in terms of competitiveness — including in relation to markets outside the Community — innovation, market access and costs and benefits;
  • take into account existing national environmental legislation that Member States consider relevant;
  • carry out appropriate consultation with stakeholders;
  • prepare an explanatory memorandum of the draft implementing measure based on the assessment referred to in point (b); and
  • set implementing date(s), any staged or transitional measure or periods, taking into account, in particular, possible impacts on SMEs or on specific product groups manufactured primarily by SMEs.

The Directive asked the Commission to consult Member States’ representatives as well as interested parties concerned with the product group, such as industry, including SMEs and craft industry, trade unions, traders, retailers, importers, environmental protection groups and consumer organizations, and to come up with a working plan, to be updated regularly.

In its article 16 (2) the Directive also identified a number of implementing measures the Commission shall introduce by anticipation, namely “starting with those products which have been identified as offering a high potential for cost-effective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, such as heating and water heating equipment, electric motor systems, lighting in both the domestic and tertiary sectors, domestic appliances, office equipment in both the domestic and tertiary sectors, consumer electronics and HVAC (heating ventilating air conditioning) systems.”

So let’s recap so far: political leaders agreed on a political target. The European Commission suggested a way to reach this target within its competency to ensure the functioning of the common market. Parliament and Council – following trilateral discussions – agreed to the proposal and gave a clear legal mandate to the Commission to act and asked it to do so in a participatory manner involving all the stakeholders.

At this point the scientists and engineers come in. As the policy officers in the Directorates-Generals of the Commission obviously are no technical experts for vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and hair dryers, they asked technical experts to help steer the discussions at the technical level and to come up with policy options, i.e. possible energy efficiency targets for each product group that were ambitious enough to reach the 20-20-20 targets, but also technically feasible. A number of working groups were set up, some chaired by the Commission’s own science service, the JRC, some by other research institutes or consultancies.

To provide an example, there was a study looking at how to make taps and showers more energy-efficient. This may sound funny at first glance, but of course there is a lot of potential for energy efficiency also in taps and showers. A look at the working group’s website, still online, reads: “Environmental, economic and technical information will be gathered, processed and used to form a common evidence base following the Ecodesign methodology. The aim of the study is to provide policy makers with evidence to assess if it is recommendable to take policy action, and if so, how to design a favorable mix of policy instruments. JRC will undertake independent, neutral, science-based research and apply its ability to strongly involve stakeholder experts in the research through a structured technical working group process. During the preparatory study, various occasions for wide consultations are foreseen with experts and stakeholders of manufacturers, supply chain industry, consumer organizations and NGOs. The evidence base uses available scientific information and data, adopts a life-cycle approach and engages participants to discuss the issues and develop consensus.”

The website outlines a process which is as open and participatory as it can possibly be. Also, and this is important to highlight, it clearly says that the process will “provide policy makers with evidence to assess if it is recommendable to take policy action, and if so, how to design a favorable mix of policy instruments.” Therefore, it is clearly designed as an open process. To assess whether to take political action or not and if so which one is not the job of scientists, but entirely up to the policy-makers.

So the scientists and engineers started to prepare studies for different product groups, following a working plan agreed between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council specifying at which particular product groups the Commission would look at and in which order. All of this was done in a transparent manner and the studies were made publicly available. A beautiful example is the final report on the energy efficiency of vacuum cleaners, which was coordinated by the consultancy AEA Energy & Environment (see here).

energy1The report follows a thorough scientific approach. It provides an economic and market analysis, studies consumer behaviour, provides a technical analysis of the existing vacuum cleaners as well as the best available techniques, and looks at the potential for improvement, leading to policy scenarios. All of this developed in a consultative process involving all stakeholders. Again, everything was done in a transparent manner and for the vacuum cleaner case there is still a website available detailing all agendas and minutes of meetings, comments received from stakeholders, draft and final reports.

So let’s recap again. Following the political agreement on the way forward the scientific community was asked to help developing policy options. It did so in a transparent and open manner, involving all stakeholders and came up with possible solutions. At this point the ball was kicked back to the policy-makers.

After the scientists and technical experts had done their job in each working group, they sent the resulting reports to the European Commission. The Directorate-General in charge of the file, in this case the DG in charge of energy policy, looked at the reports and following internal consultation in the Commission, e.g. involving the DGs in charge of environment, industry and the common market, made a political choice and came up with a draft regulation. In the vacuum cleaner case the suggestion was that all vacuum cleaners with more than 1600 Watt motor power should be phased out in 2015 and those with more than 900 Watt be phased out in 2017. This regulation was adopted by the European Commission and enforced in the Member States (obviously you cannot have 28 Member State parliaments voting on a very technical European regulation, possibly leading to amendments contradicting each other and fragmenting the common market, which is why the Commission was asked to take action in the first place).

vacuumDue to an unfortunate coincidence, the regulation on the ecodesign requirements for vacuum cleaners received the somewhat unlucky number 666/2013 and became one of the icons of EU-bashing. Immediately after its publication the regulation was attacked by the media. Headlines ranged from “Meddling eurocrats to ban supercharged hoovers as Brussels lays down new rules” (The Independent, Ireland) to “Brits say ‘EU sucks’ over vacuum cleaner ban” (CNN) to opinion pieces like “This vacuum cleaner ban is a reason to leave EU” (Derby Telegraph).

One might put this away as the usual reaction of EU-sceptical media on anything coming from Brussels, but the story did not stop there. The initial headlines were soon followed by headlines like: “The great vacuum cleaner stampede: Panic buying hits shops as deadline looms for Brussels ban on high-powered machines” (Daily Mail), “Vacuum cleaner ban: Britons clean out stores ahead of EU power limit on dust-busting machines” (Mirror), and “All Of Europe Is Panic-Buying High-Powered Vacuum Cleaners Before They Become Illegal” (Business Insider).

Instead of purchasing energy-efficient machines, people ran to the shops to buy the inefficient old models, probably under the assumption – mainly built up by populist media – that the energy efficient machines would not clean as good as those with powerful motors (which is nonsense as the one is not related to the other). This  argument was even more convincing than the prospect of a lower electricity bill thanks to more efficient household appliances. Instead of applauding the Commission for phasing out energy-devouring machines across Europe and following its duties as demanded by the Member States in the Ecodesign Directive, national politicians under the pressure of media and their constituencies went out criticizing the “eurocrats” for dealing with seemingly small issues (ignoring of course that most of them had waived their hand when the Ecodesign Directive was adopted in the first place). This reaction followed the popular scheme: if people like it, take the acclaim yourself, if people don’t like it, blame Brussels.

Interestingly, when the media debate heated up, politicians also came under pressure by industry, but from an unexpected angle: the European vacuum cleaner manufacturers were all in favour of the new Directive. This not only because they contributed via their involvement in the stakeholder consultations, but also because they saw the Directive as a tool to spur innovation, create a level-playing field in the common market and keep non-EU competitors with non-energy efficient products out of the European market. Vocal representatives of the industry included the CEO of a German manufacturer (“Vacuum cleaner manufacturers urge Cameron to back EU ban”) and Sir James Dyson (“Sir James Dyson backs EU directive on vacuum power rated above 1,600 watts” – in fact, Sir Dyson had even argued for a much tougher regulation).

The same game – science coming up with policy options based on an open stakeholder process, the Commission taking a decision based on the evidence, national politicians bashing the Commission amidst an outcry in the media – was repeated with most other proposals for energy-efficient appliances in households, including light bulbs, kettles, and coffee machines. The Ecodesign Directive with its very valid and important goals became unintentionally a roadmap for constantly feeding EU-haters with arguments why Brussels is supposedly meddling in everybody’s lives, thus becoming an icon of why citizens fell out of love with Brussels. Scientists and engineers – who just did their job as requested by policy-makers – received part of the blame for feeding an administration, deemed (in my view, unjustifiably) to be disconnected from people’s concerns. It is no surprise that one of the most important slogans in Jean-Claude Juncker’s campaign for becoming EC President in 2014 was his commitment to “lead an EU that is bigger and more ambitious on big things, and smaller and more modest on small things.” It is evident that this slogan was not least motivated by the experiences with the Ecodesign Directive.

Could scientists have done things differently? Obviously, the EU 20-20-20 targets, the Ecodesign Directive and its implementing regulations were all political decisions, made for a noble cause. Scientists provided the technical basis for them and developed options, but they cannot be made accountable for the political action. Still, science suffered a collateral damage, being seen as co-responsible for unpopular decisions. In my view, the involved scientists and engineers have done everything right. They have invested enormous efforts to provide the best possible evidence, in a broad consultative process.

What may have lacked were science advisers, being connected to both the political and scientific communities, who might have been able to spot and warn politicians and scientists alike that the process in the way it had been designed – despite all good intentions – was a recipe for PR disaster. They could also have warned scientists that they were embarking on a process that, although very technical at first sight, might become very political, thus requiring extra caution. Last, but not least, better communication and societal dialogue, involving all Member State governments who had ordered the “menu” in the first place, might have helped to get the public buy-in for an EU Directive, which despite all the controversies, is and remains one of Europe’s most outstanding achievements in the fight against global warming.

It’s all about trust

On the 15th of September the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas gave a speech on independent science advice to policy. In this speech he made a very interesting statement: “Policy decisions taken with the support of independent scientific advice will be decisions our citizens can trust”.

I totally agree with him that evidence-informed decisions can be trusted. This does not mean, however, that they are trusted. Eurobarometer surveys carried out by the European Commission in 2010 and 2013 (Eurobarometers 340 and 401) consistently showed that almost two thirds of the EU population think that science “is making our ways of life changing too fast”, while three quarters of EU citizens feel that science and technology “could be used by terrorists” or have “unforeseen side effects that are harmful to human health and the environment”. 52% of the EU population even think that because of their knowledge scientists have a power “that makes them dangerous”. These statements do not necessarily mean that people are turning anti-science – overall, citizens overwhelmingly support science and technology. However, they do indicate an increasing uneasiness among citizens about science and technology dictating political choices. Consequently, public support for evidence-informed policies cannot be taken as a given.

Source: Eurobarometer 401 (2013)

This issue is closely related to the acceptance of new technologies. Nanotechnology is a perfect example. Less than five years ago cosmetics were still advertised with claims like “containing innovative nanosilver”. I don’t know whether anybody noticed, but all these claims have disappeared from the adverts. On the contrary, you can find now advertisements claiming that products are “non-nano” or “nano-free”. This shows that public opinion on nanotechnology seems to reach a tipping point, where writing pro-nano claims on a product is rather seen as counter-productive for the success of the product on the market. Whenever claims like “free of…” appear in the media, the alarm bells should ring in scientific, business, and policy circles.

It is true that concerns of citizens about the safety of technologies are often not rational from a scientific point of view and are rather based on gut feelings. This is particularly true for everything we cannot capture with our senses, i.e. which we cannot see, hear, feel, taste or smell. Examples include radioactivity, electromagnetic radiation (such as WiFi), viruses, genetic modification and nanoparticles. I do not want to discredit these feelings: they are quite natural. It’s an instinct that has helped us to survive when we were still living in caves. Just go into a completely dark room, close the door and you know what I mean.

At the end of the day everything is about trust. Do we trust scientists? Do we trust industry? Do we trust politicians? Do we trust the media? Luckily, among these groups scientists still rank the highest on the trust scale, which is good. But it’s not sufficient if we want to get public buy-in into a new technology or into a policy decision based on evidence. If we want progress – and this inevitably means taking risks – we need to build trust in evidence-informed policy-making and, hence, in science and technology. Let’s not forget that we have a huge challenge ahead: just have a look at the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals and their ambitious targets and you will understand that humanity simply cannot afford the luxury of discussing a technology for 20 years as we did with GMOs.

So what needs to be done to build this trust?

wikiFirst and foremost we need to be open and transparent. Wikipedia is the perfect example. Everybody trusts Wikipedia and uses it on a daily basis. The trust is going so deep that it has even undermined Encyclopaedia Britannica and similar libraries with all their thousands of reviewing university professors. Why do we trust Wikipedia? Because it is open and has transparent rules. This gives us the confidence that the collective brain of the millions out there will sort out the wrong-doers (which of course also exist on Wikipedia). This transparency we need in science, but even more so in industry and politics.

Second, we need to communicate. Unfortunately, we don’t educate our students in science communication. Therefore, science communication largely depends on few scientists that have a talent and passion for communicating, on press offices that sometimes tend to overstate scientific achievements and on science journalists who have a tough time in preserving their jobs. It must be a community-wide effort. Every single scientist is called to communicate what he or she does – and this in a language lay people understand. So don’t be afraid of calling microbes “bugs”, even if your scientific peers may raise their eyebrows.

Third, we need to engage in societal dialogue. It’s not enough to send out nice press releases: scientists need to go into townhall meetings, be they physical or virtual, and face the citizens. In so doing, it is of utmost importance that we show empathy for citizen’s concerns. It’s not helpful to bang the evidence on the table and say it’s all there. In fact, there is nothing wrong with showing that also we, as scientists, are citizens with hopes and fears. We are excited or worried about things like everybody else. Societal dialogue can achieve true miracles. For instance, it is the reason why Sweden is the only country in the world that has really solved the problem of finding a nuclear waste repository. Nuclear industry, scientists and politicians went out there and discussed with citizens and in the end – combined with the political promise of hundreds of jobs to be created – there was even a competition between municipalities eager to host the waste repository.

We need to think about how to organize public dialogue in a better way and learn from best practice (another example is Sciencewise in the UK). The most crucial point of this dialogue is timing. It must happen at a point in time where a technology is sufficiently developed to have an idea of the benefits and risks, but still early enough that people don’t feel that they are faced with a fait accompli and it is just a matter of convincing them. People must feel that their opinion really matters and that they can influence developments (which also means: before industry is investing large-scale in the deployment of a technology). Another key issue is who is organizing / moderating the debate. In my view, it should neither be science, nor industry, nor NGOs, nor politics, nor churches as they will all be seen as having a stake. All of them must participate for sure, but they will not be seen as neutral. Science museums could play such a role. Being cultural organizations they are highly trusted – after all, parents and grandparents love to go to science museums with their kids. They are perceived as competent on the matter, but still as being at an arm’s length from the researchers. It also fits their agendas, as museums increasingly move from exhibiting artefacts and experiments to organizing dialogue. Last but not least, they also have the organizational capacities and facilities to run such a dialogue.

Deutsches Museum in Munich
Deutsches Museum in Munich

And fourth, we need to talk about ethics. Many concerns citizens have are not about technical issues: they are worried about ethics. About scientists who change the genomes of viruses that could make them more deadly, about industry polluting the environment to make maximum profit, about media providing biased reports, about politicians not being honest about their motivation. People are sick of bankers gaining bonuses while their banks are saved with tax-payer’s money, of multinational companies evading taxes while making billions of profits, of car manufacturers cheating regulatory authorities. We need to have a serious debate about this.

Death certain, hour uncertain

uhrFollowing last week’s blog in which I talked about risk, I want to talk today about a closely related subject: uncertainty. The only certain thing in life is that it’s deadly. The rest, up to the exact timing of death, is uncertain. This makes life thrilling, but also somewhat uncomfortable.

As we all know, uncertainty is inherent to the scientific enterprise – actually, it’s the raison d’être of science. By exploring the unknown we want to reduce the uncertainty about the world around us. But scientific results will always come with uncertainty, not least because we are humans. Even the most accurate science has always an error margin, which may depend on the precision of the instrument used and, of course, our own interpretation of the result.

In other words, scientists embrace uncertainty and they see it as their mission to reduce it as much as possible by generating new knowledge. Politicians are different. They don’t like uncertainty, many of them even hate it. The reason why many politicians ask scientists for their advice is precisely because they want to get answers that are certain, in order to underpin political decisions. So they don’t want an answer like “the result could be a or b”, but expect scientists to give them a helping hand and provide clear guidance. This is a difficult task, not least because many political decisions are about the future, which by nature is uncertain.

How to communicate uncertainty to politicians is one of the big enigmas of the science-policy relationship. Here I would like to give a few recommendations. First, we need to communicate that such a thing like uncertainty exists and that even the best advice will not provide 100% certainty. The advice provided by scientists can make the lives of politicians easier, e.g. by reducing uncertainty as far as possible, but the final decision will always be with the politician and there is a certain likelihood that he or she will get it wrong, even if following the advice.

Possible paths of Hurricane Sandy (2012)
Possible paths of Hurricane Sandy (2012)

Second, we should not be afraid of communicating uncertainty. Actually, there are many areas in which citizens are already used to deal with uncertainty information, for instance the rainfall probability of tomorrow’s weather forecast. Also when it comes to natural hazards – the potential path(s) of a hurricane, the 1 in a 100 years flood or earthquake – uncertainty statements can often be found in the media. So the scientific concept as such is familiar to most people.

Still, although scientists love to quantify uncertainty, politicians are not interested in whether the uncertainty is 8.2 or 11.7. They want to know in plain language how sure we are (“I am taking a shot in the dark here” versus “I am highly confident that this is going to happen”). This type of language can be found, for instance, in the IPCC reports which are a perfect example of how to communicate uncertainty. The answer to the “How sure are you?” question will help politicians to get an idea of how far they can rely on the evidence and whether they can be attacked on it (also from scientific circles who do not believe in the mainstream scientific opinion!). High certainty strengthens the weight of the evidence, whereas low certainty weakens the case for science to be considered.

Even more important, politicians want to know what the uncertainty means. Does it mean that in the worst case it may cost me a million bucks more or does it mean the potential end of life on this planet as we know it? This information is important, for instance, when assessing risks and discussing the possible application of precautionary measures. This is a point where politicians expect guidance from the scientific community. So don’t focus so much on the numbers, but on the story behind the numbers.

ozone hole
The ozone hole: Strong scientific consensus has provoked political action

Uncertainty also has its positive side. In particular, it gives politicians a room of maneuver as in most cases the uncertainty will allow for the development of various policy options without ignoring the science. Which option to choose is then of course up to the political bargaining. Where it becomes problematic is when politicians choose to go for a policy which goes against a highly certain evidence. Science skeptics – such as climate skeptics – often use uncertainty to underpin their cause or to discredit science (“you are not sure, so why take action”, “this is still within the natural variability” etc.). The best way to tackle this is to talk more about scientific consensus. In fact, there is a great deal of consensus out there on many issues. However, scientists often forget to communicate consensus because it’s incredibly boring for them. Scientists rather like to discuss where they disagree, around the edges of the consensus. This necessary scientific debate is then used by some politicians as an excuse to disregard science. But there are plenty of examples where a strong, united voice by science communicating consensus has actually led to political action – the ozone hole is perhaps the most prominent case.

As many people know, I am a Trekkie, and in the movie Star Trek IV (1986) there is a wonderful dialogue between a decision-maker (James T. Kirk), a scientist (Mr Spock) and a doctor (Bones McCoy):

Spock: Mr. Scott cannot give me exact figures, Admiral. So I will….. make a guess.

Kirk:       A guess? From you, Spock? That’s extraordinary!

Spock to Bones: I don’t think he understands.

Bones: No, Spock. It means he feels safer about your guesses than about most other people’s facts.

Spock: Then I will try to make the best guess I can.

I think this is the best we can do as scientists: in the presence of uncertainty to deliver the best, honest, educated guess we can, based on our knowledge and expertise. This does not mean that our guess will always be correct. After all, also scientists are humans (not all of them are vulcans…). But the chances of getting it right are always higher when following an educated guess rather than a gut feeling.

We are all chickens

It’s time to share a bit more my experiences from talking to colleagues here in the US. One issue that comes up again and again is how Europe and the US are approaching risk, for example related to new technologies. In Europe, I often heard comments like “If Europeans weren’t so risk-averse, Europe would be much more competitive” or “The Americans have a much more risk-taking attitude than we have”. But is this true?

My first observation is that we should be careful with generalized statements. The US can be incredibly risk-averse, e.g. when it comes to stem cell research, while Europe can be seen as very risk-taking – take for instance the multi-billion Euro investment in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. In fact, you cannot even talk about “the US” and “Europe”. If you look closely, both Europe and the US are incredibly fragmented if you study the approach taken towards any given technology in any State or Member State.

To explain myself: Make a map of the pro- and anti-GMO countries in Europe. Put next to it a map of pro- and anti-nuclear countries. Put next to it a map of pro- and anti-fracking countries. They will all look different. And the result cannot be explained with just North vs. South or Catholic vs. Protestant. Then make the same exercise with the US. Again, you will get very patchy maps and they seem to have nothing to do with coast vs. interior or Bible Belt vs. not Bible Belt. In fact, issues that are discussed very controversially in Europe, are also discussed very controversially in the US, fracking being one example. The debates have different connotations perhaps – the religious aspect being more prominent in the US – but in essence we are discussing the same issues.

US state policies on stem cell research (Source: http://blog.chron.com/proteinwrangler/2011/02/rices-stem-cell-policy-recommendation)
US state policies on stem cell research (Source: http://blog.chron.com/proteinwrangler/2011/02/rices-stem-cell-policy-recommendation)

The reasons why certain countries or even parts of countries (see England vs. Scotland on GMOs!) approve or reject a technology lies much deeper. Culture and/or religion certainly have an impact (take the relationship of French people to food), but often it boils down to socio-economic stakes. This explains for instance why Poland with its big shale gas resources is very happy with fracking while it rejects GMOs. The national media landscape has a role to play (Austria is a typical example, where public opinion is largely influenced by tabloid newspapers), but also institutional set-ups and political traditions matter.

However, and I am aware of the risk of generalizing here, there are differences between Europe and the US. They are essentially rooted in what I would call “the myths on which our nations are built”. The US is still very much coined by the “Go West” spirit of its founding fathers and mothers. Explore the unknown, be fruitful and multiply, don’t ask what the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. In such a spirit taking risk is rewarded more easily than in Europe where nations carry around rucksacks filled with thousands of years of history with an implicit tendency of “we have always done it like this”.

How Europe sees itself

This does not mean that either side is more or less willing to take risks, but that in my view the effort to overcome the initial “societal inertia of mass” is higher in Europe than in the US. It’s the same inertia that stops many European SMEs from becoming quickly global players like Facebook, Twitter or Google. In Europe we rather tend to trust companies that have been around for hundred or more years (which does not necessarily mean that they deserve this trust). Would Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have founded their companies in European garages? Probably not because European garages are for parking cars and not for starting world revolutions. In the US, if you haven’t gone bankrupt at least twice you are not even considered an entrepreneur, while in Europe after the first bankruptcy you will have difficulties to find anybody lending you money again (I am exaggerating here to make my point). Again, this has regional variations and the entrepreneurial spirit is likely to be higher in, say, Milan or Turin than in Rome or Naples, due to a number of reasons. Again, I am not talking here about taking more or less risk, but about the societal recognition we give to the one taking the risk, which in my view on average is higher in the US than in Europe, despite the regional differences.

Such underlying philosophies have their impact on institutions and political processes. Essentially, in the US if there is a new technology coming on the market the relevant authority will assess whether it is safe or not. If it is determined safe, politicians will debate whether they want it or not. In Europe things are a bit more messy, as the political discussion will already start at the “Is it safe?” level, inevitably messing up science with politics. This has also something to do with the trust we put in institutions, be they public or private. Again, this is an issue where I notice EU/US differences.

This does not mean that decisions in the US are more evidence-based than in Europe, though. When bringing my kids to school in Boulder I am always amazed to see all the measures in place to ensure a safe way to school for the kids (flashing lights indicating that cars need to go slower in school areas, no passing of school buses allowed when these are stopping etc.), while it is perfectly normal to see the kids rushing around on their bikes after nightfall without any lights or protective helmets on, and I am not even talking here about kids having access to guns stored in their parents’ homes. The selective perception of risk in the US certainly does not follow any logic and is not much different than in Europe. So don’t think that the American approach to things is any more rational than the European one. After all, we are humans and not vulcans!

Dangerous, yet socially accepted chemical: caffeine

As in Europe, also in the US there are many factors influencing political decisions and science is just one of them. This leads sometimes to political decisions being very evidence-based, and sometimes to policies going against the evidence. If policies would be based on evidence only, gun laws in the US would look different. German autobahns would have a speed limit. Chinese would have different air pollution laws. And we all know that coffee, if invented today, would never be authorized both in Europe and the US because caffeine is quite a nasty psychoactive chemical. I could give many more examples. But life is not like this and we have to acknowledge that the societal acceptability of issues and, hence, legislation does not always follow the evidence (after all, we are not dominated by scientists!).

However, one result of the above are different standards and thresholds in legislation as evidence is interpreted differently or sometimes ignored altogether. This has the potential to hamper international trade. Those protesting in Europe against the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) often voice their concern that TTIP would allow the “tough” European standards to be lowered to the supposedly weaker US standards. Apart from the fact that nobody has this intention, it is simply not true that the European standards are always tougher. In some areas they are, in others not. Europe is tougher on GMOs, hormones in beef, pesticides and greenhouse gas emissions, the US is tougher on air, water and soil pollution, food colouring, smoking and terrorism. Public authorities in the US are, by the way, tougher in prosecuting ethical misbehaviour of car manufacturers or international sports associations than their European counterparts.

This leads us inevitably to the icon of international trade, the chlorinated chicken. Both, Americans and Europeans are committed to maximum food safety. Americans clean the chicken in chlorine to get rid of all germs. It’s a safe – but not perfect – method and the food is safe to eat. Europeans prefer to treat their chicken with antibiotics to solve the germ problem. This is also a safe – but not perfect – method and the food is safe to eat (although it has an undesired side-effect, namely antibiotic resistance). Both methods are perfectly valid from a scientific point of view. What is different is the philosophy: Americans want that the product is safe when it lands on the plate (ex-post control), while Europeans are rather worried about how it gets there (ex-ante control). Both approaches are OK. Which one to choose is a political question, not a scientific one.

For further reading I recommend the study “The reality of precaution – Comparing risk regulation in the US and Europe”, published by the Delors Institute last year.

Ways to wisdom

In today’s blog post I would like to discuss the different institutional forms in which science advice can be delivered. The OECD report “Scientific Advice for Policy Making – The role and responsibility of expert bodies and individual scientists”, published in April 2015, distinguishes four different types of science advisers:

  • Science policy advisory committees or councils
  • Permanent or ad-hoc scientific/technical advisory structures
  • Academies, professional societies and research organizations
  • Individual scientific advisers and counsellors

Before discussing these different options in detail, we need to be clear about three concepts:

  • Science for policy versus policy for science. As the term “science policy” can be misleading, it is necessary to make this distinction. Science for policy is about advising sectorial policies, that is environment, agriculture, health, foreign policies etc. Policy for science is something different: this term refers to research policies in the strict sense of the word, aimed at supporting and organizing the generation of knowledge. It includes, for instance, research funding and research infrastructures. The only overlap between the two is in the R&D domain. For example, designing a funding instrument for research is policy for science. Providing a study on the likely impact this instrument is going to have is science for policy. Unfortunately, the two dimensions are frequently mixed up. When working for the former Commission Chief Scientific Adviser Anne Glover I often came across national science ministers who believed that science advice in their country had been sorted by having a body advising them on research policies. So let’s be clear: when we talk about scientific advice to policy-making, we talk about science for policy, not policy for science.
  • Formal advice versus informal advice. Any government that is committed to evidence-informed policy-making has formalized processes in place to ensure that scientific evidence makes its way into legislation. This can have different forms, from involving scientists from the very beginning of the policy process to consulting them in the frame of stakeholder consultations to procuring scientific studies via public tenders. All contributions are formally documented and may even be referred to in legislative documents. Formal advice usually works at weekly to monthly, sometimes yearly, time scales. In contrast, informal advice is when a politician grabs the phone and calls a scientist of his/her choice to ask for his/her opinion. This happens in particular when a quick assessment is needed either “now”, “this afternoon” or “within the next 24 hours”. It is to be noted that informal advice can never replace a formal advisory process. It can however expedite the take-up of science in the political process.
  • Scientific support to policy versus scientific advice to politics. This is a concept which has not yet really found its way into the teaching books, but I think it is important to make this distinction. Scientific support to policy is the nitty-gritty stuff, i.e. when scientists provide technical reports, check whether the numbers in the legislation are correct, whether the thresholds indicated are actually useful and measurable and the references given reflect the state of the art. This support happens at the technical level and the counterpart of the scientist is usually the desk officer in the government department who was asked by his/her political masters to draft a piece of legislation. Scientific advice to politics is different and has totally different dynamics: it is not about putting the numbers into the legislation and often not even about checking them, it is about explaining what the numbers mean, with the aim not only of convincing the politician of the evidence, but also of helping him/her to defend the evidence in public. In this case the counterpart of the scientist is an elected politician, e.g. a Minister or a Member of Parliament.

It is very important to have these concepts in mind when talking about the different types of science advisers as the different types tick different boxes. So let’s have a look at these types.

The President's Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC) of the previous European Commission
The President’s Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC) of the previous European Commission

First, advisory committees or councils. Such committees can either be permanent or ad-hoc and are usually set up for a very specific task, for instance advising on emerging health risks or the ethical implications of new technologies. Advisory committees are mostly filled with external experts – from academies, industry or civil society. Usually they are not paid for their advice, but just receive their travel costs reimbursed. The advice provided by advisory committees is formal and on record. While most advisory committees advise policy-makers, there are also a few ones advising politicians. The most prominent example is the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) in the United States, which had a counterpart in the President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) in the previous European Commission. The High-level Group currently being set up by the Commission under the Science Advisory Mechanism – replacing STAC as well as the former Chief Scientific Adviser – will serve the College of Commissioners, i.e. is also aimed at supporting the political level of the Commission.

An example in the EU Member States is the National Science & Technology Council of Portugal (CNCT) whose mission is to “provide advice to the government on transversal matters related to science and technology with the aim to define national mid- to long-term policies and strategies.” Its mission is to “advise on the definition of science & technology policies, the promotion of excellence in science, technology and education, the internationalization of Portuguese science, the interministerial articulation of science, technology and innovation policies, and scientific advice to the development of policies and public services in all areas of government.” This mission very clearly mixes science for policy with policy for science – as the Council reports to the Science Minister, it is easy to guess which of the two topics prevails.

This shows one of the main problems of “general science advice” type of committees: unless it is clearly stated that they are not supposed to comment on research policies, they tend to devote significant time to research policies or general why-science-is-important type of issues, rather than advising on other sectorial policies. Another problem of committee-type solutions is that they only meet once in a while (with members frequently missing half of the meeting due to delayed flights or early departures). Also, for being external to the body they are advising, it usually takes members quite some time to get to grips with the legal and institutional constraints of the organization they are advising. Therefore, a Committee-type solution necessarily depends on a highly efficient, capable Secretariat that bridges the times inbetween meetings and prepares these so well that committee members can use their limited time wisely. If the conditions are right, however, committees can be very useful, in particular because they are independent of the body they are advising and are thus less likely to shy away from inconvenient messages, while still being small enough to allow consensus opinions.

The European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) with its infrastructures plays a key role in providing scientific-technical support to European policies
The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) plays a key role in providing scientific-technical support to European policies

Second, permanent or ad-hoc scientific/technical advisory structures. What is meant here are, for instance, internal science services (like the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre JRC), agencies and public authorities (like the European Food Safety Authority EFSA or the US Environmental Protection Agency) or similar public bodies, such as research institutes that depend directly from sectorial ministries (like the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment BfR or the National Institute of Standards and Technology NIST in the US). These bodies are usually heavy weights with a strong reputation and strong institutional capabilities. Another big advantage is their direct access to policy-makers, being the preferred point to call by policy-makers, either because this relationship is written into legislation or based on joint work programmes or simply because they are perceived by policy-makers as being “part of the family”. Their job is essentially to do the nitty-gritty scientific-technical support, often combined with formal regulatory tasks.

The proximity to the policy-making machinery makes them understand the needs of policy-makers well and enables them to deliver tailor-made support within the required time frames. The same proximity, however, means that they are not always perceived as being entirely independent. Critics sometimes voice that due to political pressure inconvenient messages might get down-toned or delayed until when politically better suited. In fact, while their science certainly is independent – as it is peer-reviewed by the scientific community – such scientific-technical advisory structures often have to adapt to the programmatic priorities of their political masters (except in areas where they carry out regulatory tasks). Still, they would not have the reputation they have if their advice would be seen as biased. There is no case in Europe where such an organization plays a formal role of being “the” government science adviser, except perhaps for the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. In most cases these organizations do not provide advice to government in general, but rather to the Ministry they happen to report to.

Academy organizations like the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) play an increasing role in advising European policies
Academy organizations like the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) play an increasing role in advising European policies

Third, academies, professional societies and research organizations. The big advantage of academies of science is their independence and impeccable scientific reputation due to rigorous procedures. Academies and learned societies have the possibility to tap into a large pool of eminent experts across a wide range of disciplines (which does not mean that these are among the most interdisciplinary thinkers), which makes their advice credible and well respected in public. In some EU Member States academies of science play a formal role as government science advisers, as is the case in Austria, Hungary and Poland, and, to a lesser but growing extent, in Germany. Also the US National Academy of Science is a well-respected voice in government circles. A certain handicap of academies is that their membership tends to be a) male and b) old, which makes them less open for “crazy” ideas that challenge well-established views. Academies are well aware of this deficiency and try to tackle it by establishing, for instance, young academies. Another problem is a certain disconnectedness of the academies of the political process in many countries which leads sometimes to brilliant reports being delivered after a related political decision has been taken. The science academies in Europe are working hard to tackle this issue and their link to the European Commission’s new Science Advisory Mechanism will hopefully be an example to follow.

While academies with their centuries of history and real estate are powerful actors, other learned/professional societies are rather weak. I am referring here to all those Associations/Federations/Societies of XYZ-logists/-nomers/-graphers/-ists/-ticians whose budgets largely depend on individual membership contributions. They face the same institutional and financial constraints like advocacy NGOs and in fact, most of them do not have an office in Brussels or even a European roof organization that could represent them in European policy-making. However, they can provide very valuable advice, in particular as many of them play a key role in organizing citizen science (guiding hobby bird or sky watchers, for instance). Other research organizations, such as research universities or extra-university institutes and their associations frequently deliver advice that is highly relevant at the technical level (often via contracts), but less heard at the political level (unless when it is about policy for science) because their sheer number makes their advice often disappear in the “background noise”, except when picked up by the media or cherry-picked by a politician who uses a scientific statement to underpin his/her view of the world.

The Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand Professor Sir Peter Gluckman
The Chief Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand Sir Peter Gluckman

Fourth, individual scientific advisers and counselors. Here I refer to my previous blog post about the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Adviser. This model is particularly popular in the “Anglo-Saxon” World, especially in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and India. The particular strength of this model is the one single number a politician has to dial in order to get prompt scientific advice, 24/7 all year round. It also gives a publicly visible (and accountable) face to science, which is helpful for public debate. While usually being backed by an office of 5-50 people, the individual science adviser, however, can never replace the technical scientific support provided to policy by other science advisory bodies. He or she is an evidence translator, not an evidence provider. Of course, the individual adviser cannot be an expert in all scientific fields. But he or she knows whom to ask and is able to judge whether scientific evidence is sound. For this reason individual advisers can also play an important role as a “watchdog” for the integrity of the government’s science advisory system.

None of the above mentioned models trumps the others. In fact, due to their individual advantages and disadvantages it is normal to find a mixture of various types in any given science advisory system. The best suited model(s) will always depend on the respective institutional landscape and history as well as political and societal traditions and priorities. The important point is to have an independent science advisory system in place with clearly defined roles and procedures.

The Chief Scientific Adviser: Results of an experiment

Yesterday I had the pleasure to give a lecture to the crowd here at the Center for Science & Technology Policy Research. I presented my insights after three years of working with the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Adviser, complementing the presentation given by my former boss at the global science adviser meeting last year. In the following I want to summarize my talk (attention: this blog will be a bit longer than usual!).

When President Barroso suggested creating the post of Chief Scientific Adviser in September 2009, the idea had already been discussed in various circles. This included the EPC report “Enhancing the role of science in the decision-making of the European Union” published in 2005, the FP6 ex-post evaluation of the Joint Research Centre chaired by Sir David King in 2008, a public statement made by Sir John Beddington (David King’s successor as UK Chief Scientific Adviser) in March 2009, and the report “Preparing Europe for a New Renaissance – A Strategic View for the European Research Area” published by the European Research Area Board (again, with the involvement of David King) in autumn 2009.

2_bigBarroso announced the creation of the post in his re-election speech in the European Parliament on 15 September 2009, in which he also announced to appoint a Commissioner for Internal Affairs and Migration, a Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Civil Liberties, and a Commissioner for Climate Action. The reasoning behind these announcements was certainly political – Barroso needed to convince at least three Parliamentary Groups to vote for him – but he certainly would not have made the proposal if he would not have been convinced of the advantages these may bring to his mandate.

Shortly after the announcement I developed together with a colleague a paper called “A Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to the European Commission: Background, requirements and options for implementation”, which discussed the potential mandate of the CSA, but also analyzed different alternatives for implementation with a senior adviser attached to the President being the preferred option. This paper was sent to the Secretary-General, who apparently also received suggestions from other sources, such as the European Risk Forum.

DSCN1178Afterwards it took two years until a Chief Scientific Adviser – the then CSA to the Scottish Government Professor Anne Glover – was finally appointed and her mandate outlined in a Commission press release:

  • To provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the President;
  • Upon a request by the President, to provide analysis and opinion on major policy proposals being submitted to the College touching upon issues of science, technology and innovation; in particular the Chief Scientific Advisor will provide authoritative guidance on interpretation of scientific evidence in presence of uncertainty, and will be involved in strategic emergency planning [Note: this part of the mandate never materialized];
  • To build relationships with high-level advisory groups (e.g. European Research Area Board), the scientific Committees of the Commission, the EU agencies (European Medicine Agency, European Food Safety Authority, the European Chemicals Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control), the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies;
  • To build relationships with similar structures in Member States and other countries;
  • To advise on novel science, technology and innovation issues arising both in the context of the EU and internationally; to serve as an early warning conduct point on issues that might arise when scientific progress entails either opportunity or threat for the EU;
  • To communicate the scientific values on which specific Commission proposals are based in order to enhance public confidence in science and technology, and in general to promote the European culture of science and technology widely within Europe and abroad.

The role had therefore both an inward and outward facing dimension. The CSA reported directly to the President without any intermediaries (except for the President’s Cabinet) and was administratively embedded into the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA), the President’s group of advisers. While this set-up ensured a proximity to the President, it also created an institutional distance from the scientific parts of the Commission, namely the Joint Research Centre and DG Research and Innovation. The resources provided for the role were minimal, both in terms of staff and budget.

DSC_7037A number of achievements were made in the three years the CSA role existed. These included inter alia:

  • The creation of the President’s Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC) which delivered two reports on Science & Society and Foresight;
  • The creation of the European Science Advisers Forum (ESAF) in which half of the Member States participated with their government science advisers;
  • The support to the creation of the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA);
  • The support to the establishment of the EU Agencies Network on Science Advice (EU-ANSA);
  • The establishment of a Commission-internal foresight network and the development of a Eurobarometer Survey on foresight;
  • The development of a close collaboration with the European roof organizations of the national science academies;
  • Acting as a kind of “scientific ombudsman” of the Commission, responding to public complaints about the use of scientific evidence in EU legislation;
  • Being a public ambassador for European science and technology;
  • Being a role model for women in science and the young generation.

When the CSA tried to settle a dispute between two scientific camps in the area of endocrine disruptors in mid-2013, NGOs started to attack the role alleging that the position was used as a shortcut by industry to lobby the top of the European Commission. A number of very voluminous access to documents (freedom of information) requests followed to which the CSA responded, considerably slowing down the operations of the slimly resourced office.

Business was indeed very much in favour of the role as it saw the CSA as a voice of reason in highly politicized debates (see letters from European CEOs, Business Europe and the European Risk Forum). Likewise, European science organizations voiced strong support for the Chief Scientific Adviser. This ranged from the Presidents of all European science academy organizations and the Directors-General of European research laboratories like CERN, EMBL and ESO, to the Directors of scientific charities, the Directors of Europe’s largest science museums and the European Federation of Science Journalists.

On 22 July 2014, a group of 8 NGOs submitted a letter to Commission President-elect Juncker, asking him to “scrap” the function of Chief Scientific Adviser because the post was deemed to be “fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration.” They also characterized the role as being “unaccountable, intransparent and controversial”. The letter triggered a wide number of reactions from the scientific community, notably an open letter initiated by Sense about Science which was signed by 773 researchers. A number of media outlets such as the European Voice (now Politico), EurActiv and Forbes magazine as well as science journals like The Lancet also published opinions.

As many of these reactions accused the NGOs of just being against the role due to Anne Glover’s stance on genetically modified organisms, a larger group of NGOs sent another letter on 19 August 2014. In this letter the NGOs clarified that their intention was “to stimulate a debate about […] the risks that continuing the CSA position poses to scientific policy advice in general.” They went on by saying: “Far from being anti-science, our message is that there should be more objective and diverse expertise available to policy-makers than any single adviser could reasonably be expected to provide”, arguing that President Barroso’s experiment of establishing a CSA position “under-mined expert research undertaken by European agencies and independent scientists.” The NGOs concluded that the CSA role needed to be removed because of its “fundamental flaws”. The second NGO letter was picked up in particular by French media (e.g. Le Figaro, Le Monde, Libération and L’Humanité) and also the NGOs published a number of statements to underpin their argumentation (e.g. Greenpeace), some of them even accusing the CSA of “seeking to eliminate scientific discourse” (see Spinwatch).

Picture2In September 2014 the High-level Group on Innovation Policy Management, a working group set up by the European Council with Member States representatives participating, published its report “Inspiring and completing European innovation ecosystems” which stated: “The former decision of the outgoing Commission President to appoint a Chief Scientific Adviser should be maintained. But the role should be strengthened and enlarged to oversee the elaboration and application of new methods of impact assessment of EU legislation as a key input for improving policy and regulatory quality. The CSA’s task should also involve the tracking and tracing of forefront scientific development, surveying and overviewing science and innovation communication and delivering foresight studies. All works and recommendations of the CSA must be public, including any dissenting opinions.”

In the same month Anne Glover herself submitted a briefing to the incoming President on the experiences made with the CSA role, alongside with a briefing on the President’s Science & Technology Advisory Council and a note with ideas on how the science advisory system should evolve.

The Commission confirmed to Anne Glover on the evening of 11 November 2014 – coincidentally while the eyes of the scientific world were focused on the landing of ESA’s Rosetta mission on a comet – that the Chief Scientific Adviser post ceased to exist with the end of the previous Commission and was not to be renewed in the new Commission.

The media storm that followed in the following days was very interesting in a sense that three types of reaction could be identified. First, there were the anticipated reactions of those who had been vocal in either supporting or opposing the role. This included harsh reactions from the scientific community (see Science, The Scientist, BBC, Independent) as well as business (see FreshProduce Journal, Food & Drink Technology, Beverage Daily), but also NGOs celebrating that their campaign had been successful (see CIEL). Both sides of the argument wrongly interpreted that the Commission had “scrapped” the post, whereas in reality it had just expired with the end of the previous Commission.

Second, commentators made the connection between the NGO campaign, Professor Glover’s public statements on GMOs and the decision not to renew the Chief Scientific Adviser post. Many journalists – especially from UK media – argued that Mr Juncker had “given in to Greenpeace” and “sacked” the CSA because of her pro-GM views (see editorial and article in The Times, Independent, Telegraph, The Guardian, The Spectator, Herald Scotland, Discover magazine) – without providing any evidence that this was the case. Some commentators even argued that removing the science adviser post equalled removing science advice to EU policies at all (the most absurd headline being “Greenpeace wins – Science is out of EU policy-making again”). The Economist provided a more balanced view.

DSCN0833The most interesting reaction though was the third one and it certainly surprised many in the European Commission. Suddenly editorials about the role of science advice in European policy-making started to appear across Europe, including in influential national newspapers and weekly journals. In some cases these did not appear in the science sections, but as front page editorials. The issue had finally hit mainstream media in Europe, also outside the UK. Major examples include Germany (Frankfurter Allgemeine, Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Spiegel Online, Freie Welt), France (RFI), Belgium (De Standaard), the Netherlands (De Volkskrant, Elsevier), Sweden (Svenska Dagbladet, Skanska Dagbladet, DN.se, ATL), Denmark (Altinget, Videnskab.dk), Poland (INN Poland), Switzerland (News.ch, La Fribune), Italy (Il Foglio Quotidiano, Strade Online, I Mille), Spain (El Punt Avui) and Portugal (Dinheiro Digital, Observador, Noticias ao Minuto). The issue also triggered reports and editorials from around the world, most notably in the United States (Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker), Canada (La Presse), China (Xinmin, CN Beta) and Brazil (Carta Capital).

One might argue that the CSA experiment was a failure because obviously the Chief Scientific Adviser does not exist anymore. This is certainly true. However, I am convinced that the CSA experiment also was a big success.

It triggered discussions about the importance of science advice in Europe and how to deliver it. Not only Brussels embarked on discussions about science advice, but also at national level, for instance in Finland and the Netherlands, public debates started about the best mechanisms to feed science into policy-making. NGOs suddenly publish position papers on science advice in the European Commission (see here) and are organizing events about the subject, something we have not seen in the past. Business is contributing to the discussions as well (see an example here) and also the scientific community is playing its part in the debate (see for instance the book “Future directions for science advice in Europe”). All this is welcome and needed.

Finally, the new Science Advisory Mechanism suggested by the European Commission is a response to the great public interest in the matter. Obviously, the Commission has not decided just to go back to pre-CSA times, but to replace the CSA with something new, hopefully more effective. Apparently the CSA fulfilled some functions that now seem to be missing. All of the above shows that the CSA experiment had much more impact than one might think at first glance.

Caution: Precaution!

Today I want to write about another topic both industry and NGOs frequently get excited about: the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is very important because it prevents us from doing stupid mistakes which we may later regret.

lessonsThe European Environment Agency has published two reports called “Late lessons from early warnings”, describing instances where humankind got it wrong and could have reacted earlier listening to warnings issued by scientists (see here and here). Asbestos is a frequently quoted case. The two volumes give plenty of examples, but they are of course all based on the fact that we are always wiser in hindsight.

One could equally produce a book called “Late lessons from early opportunities” and would find an equal number of examples where we got it wrong either because we didn’t want to take the risk or because politicians and business leaders followed other imperatives. The history of standards provides many such examples and I highly recommend reading this article on why certain countries drive on the left-hand side and others on the right-hand side and what Napoleon has to do with all of this.

However, these hindsight stories, as instructive as they may be, do not help us if we need to take a decision now. With the almost logarithmic expansion of our knowledge and the accelerating speed of technological development in an ever more complex and interconnected world, politicians are more and more faced with such problems. Take for instance genome editing. It’s a technology that has huge potential, e.g. to create drought-resistant crops or prevent genetic diseases. However, as with all technologies, it has its pitfalls, touches on ethical issues and could be used for doing bad things. So what should we do? Ban it? Regulate to death as we have done with GMOs? Let the scientists do what they want? I don’t want to be a politician in such cases. Even scientists would find it hard to predict all the consequences of taking a decision either way.

It’s a typical example where the precautionary principle, as it was originally intended, can help us. The purpose of the precautionary principle is not to block progress. It’s intention is to allow us to go ahead, but with precaution: take the time to reflect, discuss ethical implications, gather additional evidence, if required regulate. Some researchers may see this as a bureaucratic burden, but it is a societal discussion we need to have (which does not mean discussing it forever though).

hdwallpapersimage.com-mushroom-cloud-wide-hd-wallpaper-1920x1080It is naïve to believe that inventions can somehow be de-invented. Once the knowledge is there, it’s there. It’s like with toothpaste: once it left the tube, we won’t get it back in, no matter how much we try. Of course, everybody will agree that developing the atomic bomb was a bad idea. But it’s there. So what humankind has done is to regulate it, e.g. by preventing its proliferation. And we have been pretty successful in doing so because in the past 70 years since the last bomb dropped on Nagasaki we apparently managed to prevent the bomb being used again in a war. This does not mean that the risk is not there any longer, but we have it under control. We have taken precautionary measures.

We need to be clear about the fact that any discovery, invention or technological progress entails risks. No risk, no innovation. So we should apply the precautionary principle only in cases when there is serious concern in the scientific community that we might get it wrong, with irreversible consequences. Global warming is one of these cases. If we apply the precautionary principle too often, or misuse it for political purposes, the precautionary principle loses its teeth and we risk missing opportunities that others may take advantage of.

However, whether to take precautionary measures is a political decision, not a scientific one. It’s a decision to which scientific evidence contributes significantly, but which is also based on values and belief systems. The question we always need to ask is: Is the risk of getting it wrong so high that it is worth to disregard all the opportunities? Finding this fine line is not an easy task and it will differ from technology to technology, differ between cultural contexts, and also differ over time as our body of knowledge develops. We need to ask the question again and again, as we move forward.

But politicians should never say: scientists told us to do so. Neither should scientists try to impose their view on politicians. We should give the best possible advice, voice concerns where needed, but have to accept that it is up to politicians whether to follow the advice or not. This also means, of course, that if we screw it up, the responsibility is with the politician, not with the scientist. There will be more late lessons for sure. But hopefully also an increasing number of instances where we got it right.

Lobbying the science adviser?

On 22-23 September the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory is organizing an event in the European Parliament called “Science vs. lobbying – How to escape regulatory capture?” I very much welcome this initiative as indeed this is an issue that requires attention and a public discussion is overdue. In the past, industry and NGOs too often sat in their ideological trenches and such debates open the possibility to talk to each other. Having worked for the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in the past three years, I would like to add my view to the debate.

First of all, let’s be clear that the overwhelming majority of scientists are honest people committed to deliver the best possible evidence. Even in cases where uncertainty is high, I would always rather believe in the educated guess of a scientist than the “facts” presented by non-scientists.

However, we should also be clear about the fact that the ivory tower is not populated by fairies and elfs. Actually, looking closely, the ivory tower is not even pure white, but has a lot of grey patches here and there, a couple of satellite dishes, some do-it-yourself wiring on the façade, drying clothes and flower pots on the balconies, a large set of door bells with exotic names, and a battery of mailboxes, some of them having a “no advertising” sticker. It is inhabited by very different people, from fuzzy Einsteins, to Big Bang Theory nerds to people just like you and me – and yes, there are always people going in and out (the only strange thing is that the door mat with the word “Welcome” is faced towards the inside, i.e. you can read it when stepping out).

In other words: scientists are no saints. Even if they are committed to good scientific practice they are social animals that have their convictions that may distort their view when interpreting the evidence. To overcome this natural bias, science has invented a system called peer review. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have (one could amend the famous Churchill quote to: “Peer review is the worst form of review, except for all the others”). What has gone through peer review can reasonably be trusted, despite the few black sheep which will always fool any system. Evidence accumulates over time and, although evidence sometimes contradicts each other, you will get something you can call a scientific mainstream or “consensus” (which is not static, but develops as new evidence comes in).

Now let’s talk about science advisers. Science advisers interpret and translate the evidence to somebody (e.g. a politician) who is not an expert in the field. Here comes an issue many NGOs are worried about: How to ensure that the science adviser is an honest broker and not somebody who provides distorted evidence, being lobbied by industry? The answer of some NGOs seems to be very easy: any scientist who has ever had contact with – yet alone worked for – “big” industry is per definition biased and cannot sit on advisory boards, e.g. of EU Agencies. That’s of course the nuclear bomb approach, eradicating all the good and the bad stuff. It ignores not only that scientists are supposed to work with industry (e.g. to turn scientific results into products for the benefit of all of us), but also that industry – which provides more R&D funding than the public sector – has an important role to play because industry lives in the real world and has to implement many policies, thus being an important source of advice as well.

Of course, industry has interests. They want to make profit. It’s the same way NGOs have interests and follow a particular agenda because that’s what their funders expect them to do (believe it or not, even anti-lobbying NGOs are lobbying for something). The difference is that industry has money, while NGOs have not, so it’s an uneven battle. So the question is, and here the NGOs certainly have a point, how to prevent that science advisers are misused as a back door to get lobbying interests into politics, being cloaked as “independent” scientific evidence?

Would you trust this woman?
A voice of science, not a voice of industry

The fact that Anne Glover, the former Chief Scientific Adviser in the Euroepan Commission, had an impeccable scientific record, seven honorary degrees, and never worked for industry, obviously wasn’t sufficient to convince NGOs of her independence.

Let’s feed in a story here. In October 2013 Anne Glover organized a meeting with two scientific camps who were bombarding each other via journal editorials and open letters on the issue of endocrine disruptors. As she thought that this clash was not helpful for policy-makers, she invited 3 experts from each camp – they could choose themselves who – to her office (each expert had to pay for his/her own travel expenses as the CSA office had no budget for this). Policy-makers were not invited to avoid that any of the two groups tried to lobby them. The meeting lasted three hours, in a constructive atmosphere, and the participants were able to agree afterwards to conclusions that outlined where there was consensus (actually, there was quite a lot) and where there was not (either because there wasn’t sufficient evidence available or because there was disagreement on how to interpret it). After the meeting the polemics between the camps stopped and scientists from both sides as well as policy-makers applauded the CSA’s initiative. It was an honest attempt to solve a scientific dispute in a scientific way.

What happened afterwards was that the CSA got attacked by NGOs: that she was a lobbying conduit of industry, that she had given a stage to scientists that were in the pockets of industry, that she has lifted this to the highest stage by copying in the top level of the Commission (which was her duty – after all, her boss was the President). A French journalist produced a film portraying the CSA as a target of industry lobbyists intending to delay legislation (in fact, according to the Commission the involvement of the CSA in the case had no impact on the sequence of events leading to the decision to make an impact assessment, and anyway the CSA never had any influence on the policy process itself). The CSA office got bombarded with freedom of information requests from NGOs asking to release every single e-mail related to GMOs, endocrine disruptors, the precautionary principle and many other topics (all of them were released). The CSA became a kind of hate figure for the NGOs, arguing that the CSA role had to be removed. The main argument was: one person as a science adviser is too easy to influence (interestingly, this argument is not brought forward against the UK Chief Scientific Adviser or the Chief Scientist of Greenpeace).

In my opinion, a lot of these arguments stemmed from a wrong impression of what a Chief Scientific Adviser is and can do. The impression among NGOs was: there is a high-level figure next to the President who has the power to override all the scientific advisory processes that happened at lower levels, whisper anything into the President’s ear and then the President snips with the finger and the policy comes to a halt or is changed significantly. Indeed, industry tried to lobby the CSA on various occasions, probably following the same assumption. Even representatives from the scientific community sometimes seemed to believe that the CSA would mark a new era in which all policies would be based on evidence.

Explaining science to a politician
Explaining science to a politician

The reality is much more simple. Neither was the CSA consulted on policy proposals of the Commission nor did she try to exercise such an influence. With one exception she never participated to meetings of the College of Commissioners, and the President met her only occasionally, being busy with other things. In any case with very few staff in the office there is not much you can do.

Let’s be clear: Science advice given to politics does not replace or override scientific-technical support given to policy. They are complementary. It’s not the job of a Chief Scientific Adviser to check that every single number in a piece of legislation is correct or even to change the numbers. It’s his/her job to help the politician understand what the numbers mean. A science adviser is not an evidence provider, but an evidence translator. Of course, it is up to the politician whether he or she wants to listen to the advice or not. For sure the least a science adviser wants to lose is his or her scientific credibility by providing advice that is not backed by the scientific community at large.

The NGOs criticized Anne Glover for being “unaccountable, intransparent and controversial”. Was she controversial? Yes, without any doubt because she dared to speak up for science on politically controversial topics. Obviously, the science academies of Europe felt represented by her opinions, otherwise they would have complained. Was she unaccountable (apart from being obviously accountable to her line manager, the President)? No, because contrary to political and economic advisers she voiced her views in public, thus opening them for scrutiny by her fellow scientists. Was she intransparent? Ah, here comes the tricky point.

In my view, the Chief Scientific Adviser in the European Commission would have been more successful if the role would have been allowed upfront to be much more transparent. There is no doubt that the best way to ensure that scientific advice is unbiased is full transparency – here I am fully on the side of the NGOs. The new Commission rule whereas Commissioners and Directors-General can only meet with lobbyists who are on the Transparency Register and that all such meetings should be published is certainly a big step in the right direction. Also, conflicts of interest must be made transparent in a consistent manner and this includes, of course, scientists. Managing conflicts of interest is not rocket science.

However, I would go a step further and would like to see this transparency applied throughout the policy process. There should be clear guidelines for Commission services on how to procure, use and communicate scientific evidence, as practices vary considerably. One possibility would be to create something like an “Evidence Portal”, on which Commission services would publish “calls for evidence”. Everybody who thinks to have useful evidence can submit it via this portal and it would be transparent for everybody what the evidence is and who submitted it, be it academia, industry, NGOs or citizen scientists. This would be followed by a quality assessment step, synthesizing and valuing the evidence, again the results being made transparent. And then comes the political step in which the policy-maker weighs the evidence against other factors, such as economic viability, ethical considerations, social acceptance, etc. This may lead then to a decision to ignore the evidence or parts of it. Perfectly fine, that’s democracy. But again, this should be made transparent – if the evidence is ignored, politicians should say so and say why.

This way we would get much more honesty into the political debate. If there is something to be learnt from the GMO story, then that we should never allow  science to be blamed by politics for taking or not taking a decision which in reality is motivated by other reasons. Transparency, combined with a code of ethics, is the way to go, for politicians, for public administration, for industry, for NGOs, for scientists – and, naturally, science advisers.

Editorial remark: Following a comment received I have corrected the paragraph describing the endocrine disruptor case.