EU scientists ‘Trump-et’ need for evidence-based policies

Donald Trump departs after signing an Energy Independence Executive Order at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Washington, 28 March. [Ron Sach/EPA]

It’s an age-old question: policy-based evidence, or evidence-based policy? While the answer has traditionally been left to policymakers, scientists and their supporters are marching around the world on Saturday 22 April to demand political leaders such as US president Donald Trump enact evidence-based policies.

The March for Science – as part of a series of Earth Day activities – will take place across more than 500 cities in a celebration of science, the importance of evidence-based policymaking and the value of the international and collaborative nature of science, according to its organisers.

The event has been prompted by the Trump Administration’s recent decisions to sharply reduce funding for America’s Environment Protection Agency (with core programmes cut by 20%-30%), overturn the Clean Power Plan, open federal lands to coal mining and roll back new vehicle emissions standards.

President Trump’s threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a legally binding 2015 agreement on climate change signed by 195 countries intent on keeping global warming below 2°C, is referred to by March for Science as a clear example of policy-based evidence, given that it ignores the scientific consensus that human activities are accelerating climate change.

Frontal attack

“The US has engaged in a frontal attack on the scientific infrastructure and budget [signaling] a return to the Dark Ages,” said Jean-Pascale van Ypersele, a professor of climatology and environmental sciences at Belgium’s  Université Catholique de Louvain and former vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), at a press event in support of the March for Science.

Van Ypersele stressed “the importance of a sound knowledge base for taking sound political decisions”.

However, some of the criticisms levelled at the US also found targets in the EU, specifically its approach toward processes that inform policy decisions and funding for independent science.

Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Green MEP and climate scientist, didn’t pull any punches in pointing to the European Commission’s use of impact assessments (IAs) as a prime example of putting policy before evidence: “IAs are not objective…they always favour the Commission’s position!”

The Commission’s own guidelines state that IAs gather and analyse “evidence to support policymaking”, and are “only an aid to policymaking/decision making and not a substitute for it”.

Reduced research budget

Eickhout and Ypersele pointed to reduced EU and national funding for “pure science” as another area of concern, specifically that EU member states’ funding for scientific R&D hovered around 2% of their combined GDP in 2015. This lags behind the ‘Barcelona target’ set by the European Council in 2002 to increase investment in scientific R&D to 3% of GDP by 2010 in EU member states.

When queried by euractiv.com about specific ways in which science could better feed into, and be a part of, policy decisions, Eickhout pointed to the IPCC reports, which all contain a summary for policymakers (SPM); the form is approved line by line by governments and is considered indispensable to obtaining national government adoption.

“Scientific information often gets lost…this is not lobbying, but feeding information into the process,” it reads.

Sofie Vanthournout, director of Sense about Science EU, an NGO monitoring the use and abuse of scientific evidence in EU policy, pointed to the need for a mentality shift: “We need clear communications on which part of decisions are fact-based and which part is policy-based.”

While the March for Science organisers anticipate hundreds of thousands of participants globally on Saturday, there is something that unites them all, adds Vanthournout: “Facts matter.” Science March Brussels will start at 2 PM in Place de l’Albertine and run until 6 PM.

[Video by AnnMarie Welser]