The Scientific Advice Mechanism – Is it better regulation?

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

European Commissioners should publicly explain their reasoning when scientific advice is not followed. [Shutterstock]

Ultimately, the system of scientific advice should be systemic, synced to political timeframes, and have a say not only in policy proposals but on political agenda setting. Philip Hines talks us through the Commission’s Scientific Advise Mechanism.

Philip Hines is a former programme assistant at the European Policy Centre.

Societal progress in everything, from the economy to health care, is largely driven by a combination of scientific advancement and governance. Connecting scientific evidence and governance is scientific advice.

The EU’s drive towards informed ‘better regulation’, its 2020 strategy for ‘smart’ growth, and its long term vision for a knowledge economy all necessitate evidenced-based policy-making. Whether it is about day-to-day technical matters, often driven by standardisation and harmonisation of pre-existing policies, or about highly complex future policy questions, scientific evidence is required to inform policy-making.

Fundamentally, in an era in which challenges are increasingly globalised, intertwined and dependent upon science for solutions —climate change and the worldwide water shortage, for example — scientific advice and policymaking must transcend borders.

How these structures channel advice into policymaking has been evolving within the EU. Most notably, with the recent drive towards better regulation, the objective is to improve transparency and participation in the policy-making process.

Beyond the strengthening of Impact Assessments, a core mechanism was devised to provide high quality, timely and independent scientific advice for any Commission policymaking activity, drawing existing advice together through a new Scientific Advise Mechanism (SAM).

At the core of the SAM is a High Level Group of Scientific Advisors, composed of seven highly qualified, diverse and reputable scientists who have experience at the interface of science and policy. The group has a remit to provide advice to the college of Commissioners in areas which the other bodies within the EU do not.

Whilst the SAM is supposed to be independent and guarded from political (and other vested-interest group) interference, the questions it handles are ultimately decided by the Commission.

Interestingly, it is also tasked to inform the Commission on areas where scientific advice is needed, and on improving the executive’s interface between science and policymaking, potentially putting it in conflict with the politics the Commission has to navigate.

The SAM will also be working with the new ‘Science Advice for Policy by the European Academies’ consortium, which is set to help fulfil SAM’s mandate. However, drawing evidence and brokering consensus from national academies is a time-consuming exercise: the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, one of the five networks of EU academies that the SAM is set to work with, describes their rapid response as a few months.

Such time scales mean it will be a challenge for the SAM to deliver in a relevant timescale for the Commission.

The SAM has the mandate to “provide recommendations for improving the overall interaction between Commission policy-making processes and independent scientific advice”. Given this mandate, and the central role of impact assessment in the better regulation process, the SAM should address shortcomings within this process:

  • The Better Regulation Guidelines lay out a fairly robust pathway for impact assessments. However, there is a residual lack of transparency in selecting evidence: it doesn’t force the authors to give the methodology used to acquire and screen evidence. As a result, many of the facts and figures that the institutions use to make policy are unreferenced and may appear arbitrary or selective to suit a policy goal; as seen in the recent glyphosate debacle. Therefore, a comprehensive, standardised and validated method to select and weigh evidence, incorporating inclusion and exclusion criteria, would further the transparency and validity of the evidence base. All evidence accrued throughout the impact assessment could be transparently graded through an online evidence portal, with any gaps visible to the research community;
  • Public consultations should be proactive in reaching a larger audience beyond sectoral policy silos. They should be a dialogue rather than a singular proposal and response format;
  • Impact assessments, and thus the basis of policy proposals, are only assessed formally through the RSB. However, this consists of only two or three permanent external experts (currently all of whom have a background in economics or law). The evidence base within impact assessment should be externally peer-reviewed with reviewers selected on a case-by-case basis for their expertise on the subject. This would quell a lot of the concerns regarding the evidence base of Commission proposals, as well as assist the European Parliament’s own ex-ante appraisals and secondary impact assessments.

Beyond those assessments, there are many areas in which the SAM could use its mandate, for example:

  • Drawing on lessons from cognitive psychology, marketing and EU agencies, the SAM should lead the way for scientific advice to be presented in a relatable manner and to convey uncertainty in such a way so as to overcome risk bias;
  • If the Commission acts contrary to the advice delivered by the SAM then the Commissioner responsible should have to publically detail why the advice was not followed;
  • The SAM should feed into the Commission’s agenda-setting processes. It should use the SAPEA network to systematically consult national academies of science across the EU on areas they think require legislative action.

Science needs to visibly ground policymaking to evidence and illuminate uncertainty. These advice bodies should not only inform policymakers but should engage with citizens and the ecosystem of actors surrounding them. Only then will we have effectively evolving governance that enables the public to feel confident it works for them. Advancing advice in this direction within the Commission will the biggest challenge facing the SAM.

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