Putting an end to months of suspense, the European Commission today unveiled a broad plan for a new science advice system at a meeting in Brussels. As a key part of the system, the commission plans to appoint a seven-member, high-level panel of scientists to advise its policymakers. It also will create structures to better draw on the expertise of Europe’s national academies and learned societies, ScienceInsider has learned.
"After six months in limbo, it’s welcome news that the commission [is announcing] its plans for the future of scientific advice,” wrote James Wilsdon, a science policy specialist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, in an e-mail. “A high level group, properly resourced, with links to national academies and learned societies could work well.”
Today’s announcement marks a major turn after a period of uncertainty that began this past November, when new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker effectively ended the 3-year-old post of chief scientific adviser (CSA). Juncker did not renew the mandate of Anne Glover, the commission’s first CSA, drawing fierce protests from many researchers—particularly in the United Kingdom. Some saw the move as a sign of Juncker's disregard for science.
Others, however, welcomed the opportunity to remake the commission’s science advice system and the CSA role, which critics said lacked transparency and was vulnerable to corporate influence.
Juncker promised he would find a way to obtain science advice on policy issues, but the commission stayed mostly mum as research commissioner Carlos Moedas developed a proposal for a new system. It aims to draw on existing structures—such as nation-based academies of prominent scientists, and existing advisory bodies—to provide timely, independent advice across all policy areas.
Today, Juncker endorsed Moedas's plan at the Brussels meeting, which included high-profile scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners and Paul Nurse, president of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society.
Moedas gave more details about what he calls the Scientific Advice Mechanism, or SAM, after the meeting. The group will be made up of seven “top level” scientists, whom he insisted will not be employed by the commission—contrary to the former CSA. The advisory panel's members will be recruited by a three-strong “identification committee,” through a process modeled after the European Research Council's search for scientific council members. Moedas described his own role as that of a “facilitator” between the commissioners who need advice and the future high-level panel.
In house, 20 to 25 people will be assigned to the SAM in the commission's research directorate. In addition, “up to €6 million” could be made available to “organize the supply” of science advice from national academies, Moedas told reporters, adding that this figure still needs to be confirmed.
Many details remain to be fleshed out, however. The commission has yet to announce how the advisory group's work will be linked to the commission's in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre, and how the new group will differ from the advisory body set up in 2013 to advise Juncker's predecessor, José Manuel Barroso.
“[M]y understanding is that the previous [group] met quite infrequently and had a pretty hands-off advisory role, whereas this new group would be … smaller, more focused, more engaged,” writes Wilsdon, who recently co-edited a collection of essays called Future Directions for Scientific Advice in Europe.
The commission aims to have the new system up and running by fall.
*Update, 13 May, 10:44 a.m.: This item has been upated to include details on the new panel's makeup and role.