Juncker please note: You need more, not less science

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Stephen Boucher [UDI MODEM]

The Juncker Commission has a unique opportunity to put independent science squarely at the heart of the EU policy machinery. It’s not a side issue, it’s key to understanding the big picture, writes Stephen Boucher.

Stephen Boucher is former programme director at the European Climate Foundation, he is currently coordinator of the Belgium section of French party UDI.

Brussels has become the city of entrenched battle lines. Not those of 1914-1918, but the ones that slow down and weaken legislation on so many fronts. It’s “demosclerosis” on a grand scale, as Jonathan Rauch, a former correspondent for The Economist stressed with startling clarity back in the 1990s, in the United States.

In this environment, expertise is no longer a facilitator of efficient and informed rule-making, but a communication tool pitting one side against the other on any issue. As the European Commission reconsiders the role of BEPA (the Bureau of European Policy Advisers) and of the Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA), it needs to take steps to “make sure that Commission proposals and activities are based on sound scientific evidence,” as Jean-Claude Juncker emphasized as one of his priorities.

What Al Gore stressed regarding the debate over global warming in the US rings valid across issues in Brussels: “After World War II, a philosopher studying the impact of organized propaganda on the quality of democratic debate wrote, ‘The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false.’”

Furthermore, governments are ill-equipped to deal with 21st century systemic policy issues that increasingly present three challenges for institutions designed for other times and purposes: they effect countries across borders, even sometimes globally, as in the case of climate; they effect citizens across generations; they require increasing levels of expertise to be understood and solved, and expertise becomes a tool in the lobbying game, rather than a means to enlighten the debate. Here also, expertise is too easily framed as a question of “us” vs. “them”, of “true” or “false”, and cast in doubt when scientists tread with caution, as they should.

Fair enough, science per se is not questioned so much on its merits in Europe – although that happens – as in the US. The Joint Research Council and scientists in scores of EU agencies play an important role. And scientific advice does get recorded in countless hearings and consultations. And yet, our limited EU institutions produce legislation that often fails to send the proper signal to the “end consumer” and ends far away from what scientists recommend. Climate action is a case in point. Decisions in this field may be labelled “ambitious” ad nauseam by heads of state, but they fall wide of the mark.

We cannot accept this blithely, satisfying ourselves with a glass half full, while standing in wonder in front of the rise of populism and euroscepticism. There are obviously many reasons for European legislation’s imperfections. However, in light of Jean-Claude Juncker’s revamp of BEPA and after the Commission decided to retire the position of Chief Scientific Advisor, we need to consider carefully what contribution science can make to improve EU legislation.

Fact: “Scientific advice must be central to EU policy making, otherwise you run the risk of having important decisions being unduly influenced by those with mixed motives,” as Paul Nurse of the Royal Society argued recently in relation to the announcement of the cancellation of the CSA job. Proper scientists – not lobby mercenaries – can be a bulwark against partial interests. In this respect, environmental organisations’ conclusion that the CSA position, which Anne Glover held until recently, should be scrapped, apparently in response to her open support of the use of GMO’s in agriculture, was short-sighted. If the position, indeed, “concentrates too much influence in one person”, then wouldn’t it be wiser simply to de-concentrate? Not a lone-CSA struggling through the mass of science, but a team?

What is in fact needed, both at EU and national level, is a more systematic, institutionalised and transparent integration of independent scientists into policy making. Not forgetting to draw from a wide range of fields. As Counterpoint Director Catherine Fieschi and Open Society European Policy Institute Director Heather Grabbe aptly argue: “Policy-makers tend to listen to economists and statisticians for advice, but they rarely benefit from research in disciplines such as neuroscience, psychoanalysis, anthropology or architecture.” 

For that however, we need to invent the 21st century forms of such cooperation. Perhaps a college of a dozen scientists drawn randomly from a pool of candidates nominated by member states, rotating every year, and whose advice would be made public? Perhaps aided by an EU Ombusdman for Future Generations modelled after the late Hungarian experiment? A proper EU Academy of Sciences linking national academies and consulted on key pieces of legislation?

Or all of the above? Or other initiatives? There is no dearth of experiments around the world that we can learn from. The Juncker Commission has a unique opportunity to put independent science squarely at the heart of the EU policy machinery. It’s not a side issue, it’s key to seeing above the trenches.

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