The past few months have not been a triumph for science-based policy making in the EU, writes Hans-Olaf Henkel.
Hans-Olaf Henkel is vice-chair of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy and a German member of European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR, AfD).
The plundering of European money for research and development in favour of short term and politically-motivated projects is a matter that I have regularly argued against in the European Parliament without great success. However, the protest letter written to the European Commission by a number of Nobel Prize Winners should be seen as a last SOS call to save the ambitious European research project Horizon 2020 from sinking.
The past few months have not been a triumph for science-based policy making in the EU. An early indication came when the Commission kowtowed to the agenda of lobby groups demanding the highly respected Chief Scientific Adviser Anne Glover be removed from office. Dr Glover’s role had been to ensure independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the Commission President, as well as providing analysis on major policy proposals submitted to the College of Commissioners. Despite promises from both President Juncker and Vice-President Timmermans that her post would be retained, we have yet to see a proposal from Commissioner Moedas to find a successor.
In a leaner, less bureaucratic, growth-focused Europe, the role of science should be augmented not diminished. The European Parliament is already susceptible to negative campaigning and scaremongering from lobby groups on environmental and food safety legislation but we should all be concerned if the Commission itself is allowing its policy decisions to be overrun by pressure groups that the Commission itself often funds. It may be a virtuous circle for the lobby groups, but it is to the mortal detriment of science-based policy making.
Following the Scientific Officer debacle came the proposal for a European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI). In short, this is an attempt to unlock €315bn of investment in the European economy over the next three years. The contribution coming directly from the EU will be eight billion euros, with a further injection from the EIB to leverage private capital for infrastructure projects and research and innovation.
Leaving aside concerns about the fund itself, the eight billion euros will be taken from budget lines allocated to infrastructure and research and innovation. We are told by the commission not to worry, as the leverage generated by EFSI will see more money spent on research and innovation. This is fundamentally flawed. The private sector is only going to invest in close to market activities that offer a return on investment. Taking money from frontier research and excellent science will not see it come back to frontier projects.
Policy makers have to see science as a stepping stone to the innovations that lead to jobs and growth. Without this vision, America and Asia will leave us behind. We cannot afford for European politicians and governments to pay lip service to research and development one day, only to make opposite decisions the next. As a former boss of a hi-tech company, or an industrial federation and a large research association, industry actions are often oriented to long term decisions where our future success is often decided in a laboratory or research institute. The future of Europe is no different.
It is time that science won over ideology, and Europe’s long-term interests are put above short-term political expediency. If the Commission continues to ignore the warning of the science community, then both Horizon2020, and the EU’s place as a leader in science, will sink.