U.K. science campaign group sets up shop in Brussels

Sense about Science encourages the public to ask for the evidence behind policy decisions.

Sense about Science

U.K. science campaign group sets up shop in Brussels

The United Kingdom's influence on E.U. policy may be about to drop dramatically, but one U.K. lobby group is only just getting started in Brussels. Sense about Science, a London-based group that seeks to increase public understanding of science and promote evidence-based policy, has just created a Brussels offshoot that will "monitor the use and abuse of scientific evidence in EU policy."

In the United Kingdom, Sense about Science has forcefully weighed in on contentious issues such as genetically modified organisms, the health risk of chemicals, alternative medicine, vaccination, "detox diets," and libel laws. The group has produced a series of reports, manages a database of thousands of experts willing to speak to the press, and issues an annual award, the John Maddox Prize, for "individuals who promote sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest, facing difficulty or hostility in doing so."

The Brussels branch has a director, Sofie Vanthournout, and a Twitter account, but no website; the campaign will officially launch at the EuroScience Open Forum, a major science and policy meeting in Manchester, U.K., on 26 July. After that, Vanthournout hopes to start organizing workshops for young scientists who want to learn how to interact with the media, the public, and E.U. policymakers; she also plans to produce a guide to explain to scientists how Brussels works. "An important step in this is that scientists get more involved in E.U. policy," she says. The new branch will encourage E.U. citizens to ask for evidence behind policy decisions.

Sense about Science was founded in 2002. "Media scare stories, from vaccines causing autism to mobile phones frying our brain, were rife across the media," says Síle Lane, director of campaigns and policy at Sense about Science UK. "Scientists were on the fringe of public debates and their voices weren’t heard.” Much the same is true in Brussels today, she argues.

Sense about Science UK is financed primarily by trusts, foundations, learned societies, and research institutes. Except for scientific publishers like Elsevier and Wiley, industry contributes very little, according to the group's website. For now, the Brussels operation will be funded from the U.K. budget, but Vanthournout plans to hit up "some major European foundations" for cash as well.

Many studies have revealed that, when it comes to controversial topics, Europeans don't put a lot of faith in the voice of science. For instance, a survey among 1000 Germans published last week showed that 46% said they trusted scientists on the topic of the origin of the universe, whereas 17% distrusted them; but on genetically modified crops, only 17% of respondents trusted scientists, whereas 56% did not.

That suggests Sense about Science EU has got its job cut out, says Markus Weißkopf, managing director at Wissenschaft im Dialog in Berlin, a group that seeks to foster discussions about science and that organized the survey. Weißkopf says he has been impressed by Sense about Science's work so far. "I’m not sure how well that works on a European level, but I would certainly be happy if it does," he adds.

Although the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union came as a shock, Lane says, it hasn’t put a damper on the plans. On the contrary, the anti-E.U. sentiments exposed by the Brexit may make things easier for Sense about Science EU, she argues. "There are going to be discussions about engaging more citizens in European policymaking and about institutions being more open," Lane says. "This is exactly the right time."