Carlos Moedas, the EU’s research and innovation chief, called on his colleagues in the European Commission to embrace science-based policymaking, telling politicians they will always retain the last word over scientists and shouldn’t be afraid of losing control.
In a digital world where unverified information is being exchanged at the speed of light, getting trusted scientific evidence has become paramount for politicians and the general public, said Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner in charge of Research, Science and Innovation.
“People are tired of being bombarded with facts and numbers” coming from unidentified sources, Moedas told an event hosted last week by Kreab, a Brussels-based public affairs and strategic communications consultancy.
Around the world, scientists have also increasingly come under attack from politicians. In the US, President Donald Trump described evidence on global warming as “bullshit”, despite overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that climate change is real and largely caused by human activity.
But Moedas hoped the European Commission will put science back at the heart of policymaking, with help from a new group of scientific advisers, established in late 2015 as part of the executive’s new Scientific Advice Mechanism.
The seven-member panel includes scientific “rock stars” like Cédric Villani, a French mathematician who was awarded the Fields Medal in 2010, and Sir Paul Nurse, an English geneticist who won the 2001 Nobel Prize and only recently joined the group.
A new way of looking at scientific evidence
According to Moedas, the panel embodies “a new way of looking at scientific evidence” at the EU executive, which started in late 2015, one year after Jean-Claude Juncker was appointed European Commission president.
The new approach is “to explain in a very humble way what is the process” behind scientific opinions and shed a light on the uncertainties that remain, Moedas said.
“Scientific evidence is also a lot about doubt,” Moedas said, stressing that scientific uncertainty needs to be presented in an honest way in order to encourage public buy-in of policy decisions.
For example, people won’t believe assertions like “trade is good” without further explanation, Moedas said in reference to the beleaguered EU-US trade pact, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
“No-one buys into these quick shots anymore. People want to be explained what the evidence is, how you came to that conclusion, and also what doubts you may have as a scientist.”
“You have to explain the inferential gap – which means, the difference between what you don’t know and what you are inferring.”
“It’s more about explaining the process more than the evidence.”
Transparency and impartiality of science
Put in place by Jean-Claude Juncker in 2015, the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) replaced Anne Glover, who was chief scientific advisor to former Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
But the group’s remit is different because its opinions are intended to be made public whereas Anne Glover’s advice was confidential and destined only for the eyes of the Commission president.
And although they are paid by the Commission, the seven members of the high-level group are not full-time Commission employees, contrary to Glover.
Crucially, the group has decided to base all its opinions on publicly available studies, as a way to ensure concerned citizens and civil society groups have access to the evidence and are able to question it.
The transparency of the process is intended to ensure a higher level of trust from the general public at a time when the impartiality of science is being questioned more and more – in areas like GMOs, pesticides or endocrine disruptors where most safety evaluation studies are confidential and funded by industry.
Full transparency is also meant to guarantee a higher level of independence of the scientific studies on which the panel bases its opinions.
Indeed, when Commission officials look for evidence on which to base policy proposals, they can take it from any source, Moedas said, citing the EU’s own in-house department, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the University of Beijing or any other institute around the world.
But not all offer the same guarantees of impartiality, Moedas cautioned.
“We had a lot of discussions about this at the Commission,” he said, adding that “the first rule of scientific evidence is that it has to be independent”.
Moedas admitted that the Scientific Advice Mechanism has had a slow start, because it took time to put the high-level group in place.
The group’s first scientific opinion, on CO2 emission tests for cars, was published in November 2016, one year after the SAM was established.
“The first year, we didn’t communicate a lot to the outside world,” Moedas conceded. A big part of the work focused on explaining internally to Commission colleagues how they could use the Scientific Advice Mechanism to get input for their policy proposals.
But he promised the group will soon make its voice heard a bit louder. Another opinion, on cybersecurity and online trust in e-commerce platforms, e-identities and other services in the digital single market is expected towards the end of March, euractiv.com was told.
The “obligations of sovereignty”
More fundamentally, Moedas said science had become an essential instrument for international cooperation in a world where challenges are increasingly of a global nature.
“For so long, sovereignty was about defending your borders” and other related sovereign “rights” like printing money, imposing taxes or declaring war, Moedas said.
“But suddenly, in a digital world, that all changed,” he said, underlining the “sovereign obligation” that countries now have to respond to crises such as climate change or the Ebola outbreak, which call for global solutions.
Now, with the digital revolution, the very notion of national sovereignty is being turned upside down, Moedas remarked.
“We’ve been discussing in our Scientific Advice Mechanism about cybersecurity,” he said, citing another example of a borderless global threat. “Cybersecurity is such a great example of why sovereignty doesn’t mean anything anymore,” he said to illustrate his point about the “obligations of sovereignty”.
The group is expected to publish its opinion on cybersecurity in late March.