Scientific Advice Mechanism's High Level Group

The SAM group poses with European research commissioner Carlos Moedas. From left to right: Cédric Villani, Elvira Fortunato, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Moedas, Henrik Wegener, Pearl Dykstra, Janusz Bujnicki, and Julia Slingo.

European Union, 2016

Meet Europe's new science advice brigade

MANCHESTER, U.K.—Too many cooks spoil the broth, goes the saying. Could too many advisers spoil the advice?

On the contrary, say the seven scientists who front the European Commission's new Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM), and who collectively replaced the single-headed role of chief scientific adviser last year. Their “200 years of combined experience" is a strength, boasts microbiologist Henrik Wegener, chairman of the so-called High Level Group and executive vice president of the Technical University of Denmark in Kongens Lyngby.

ScienceInsider sat at the advisers' table after the first day of a 2-day meeting on the margins of the EuroScience Open Forum, a large biennial conference held here from 23 to 27 July. The group, nicknamed the “magnificent seven” by Robert-Jan Smits, the commission's director-general for research, is made up of three women and four men from a range of disciplines, countries, and ages—a mix of backgrounds reminiscent of the carefully assembled skill set of the characters in the heist movie Ocean's Eleven.

Besides Wegener, who has championed the prudent use of antibiotics in animal farming, the members include:

Janusz Bujnicki, a 40-year-old, perky bioinformatician who in 2010 earned Poland its first coveted European Research Council starting grant in the biological sciences;

Pearl Dykstra, a sociologist in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who studies aging and solidarity between generations, and is vice president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam;

Elvira Fortunato, the group's deputy chair, a materials scientist from Lisbon and pioneer of paper electronics, who did not attend the meeting here;

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, former head of CERN, the particle physics center in Geneva, Switzerland, where the Higgs boson was discovered;

Julia Slingo, chief scientist of the U.K. national weather office, who in 2008 became an officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to environmental and climate science; and

Cédric Villani, a mathematician and Fields Medal winner from Paris, also known for his eccentric, Oscar Wilde–style outfits.

This week's meeting was the group's third since the scientists were appointed last November. The members seemed to be getting along well, filling their grand hotel's plush meeting room with regular bursts of laughter, and were eager to speak—albeit cautiously—about their work.

The group is, in part, filling the shoes of Anne Glover, the first and only chief scientific adviser in the European Commission's history, whose job disappeared in 2014, 3 years after its creation. But the SAM setup is very different. Glover was a commission employee with a small team at the institution's Brussels headquarters, five floors and an internal phone call away from the then–commission President José Manuel Barroso. She traveled widely and spoke at meetings around the European Union, earning her an unofficial status as an ambassador of European science.

In contrast, the new advisers all keep their main job—and a lower profile. The commission pays for at least 40 days of their time every year. They rely on 16 people within the commission's research directorate who do much of the legwork to help the group produce opinions, including sifting through the literature—the group has pledged to rely primarily on peer-reviewed papers—as well as organizing visits and workshops to gather expert input.

Although there is a plethora of other advisory groups out there, theirs lies “at the upper level of the European Commission’s policy system,” Wegener says. Carlos Moedas, the European commissioner for research, innovation, and science, generally joins the group's meetings, which usually take place in Brussels, and makes the link between the group and the other 27 commissioners.

At the commission's request, the group wrote a five-page "explanatory note” in June to disentangle a web of seemingly contradictory evidence on the harmful effects of glyphosate, a widely used herbicide. The group took 6 weeks to produce the note, which seeks to explain in particular why the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority came up with different conclusions, but does not favor any of the assessments. The group can narrow options down, Wegener says, but does not advocate for particular policies. (After a lengthy deadlock among E.U. member states, the commission eventually renewed glyphosate's license for 18 months.)

Aside from this unusual short-term assignment, the SAM spends most of its time examining topics agreed with the European Commission. At the moment, they have two subjects on their plate. By October, the group will lay out different approaches to better measure carbon dioxide emissions from cars, an opinion that will feed into new E.U. legislation in the wake of the Volkswagen diesel scandal. Then, the scientists are expected to issue a document on cybersecurity early next year.

The seven are discussing other topics with “potential clients”—that is, commissioners who want advice on other policy issues—but they've also come up with some possible subjects themselves, says Wegener, who did not provide details. Matching demand and supply of advice may become a challenge, the chairman adds. “The group wants to be able to take as much work as is relevant,” he says. But if commissioners start lining up for scientific advice, “we might have to decide to boost the system or find different ways of working,” Slingo suggests.

Building links with academies of science might be another challenge, Wegener says. The high-level group is expected to formally channel input from 100 academies and learned societies across Europe. It has only just begun making contact, and for now it's unclear how this relationship will work.

“A crucial question is: To what extent will the SAM, including the academies' contributions, provide policy options or just display the state of the art?” says Matthias Johannsen, executive director of ALLEA, the federation of All European Academies, based in Berlin. At the moment, the European academies' networks have limited resources, Johannsen says, but the funding expected from the commission as part of the SAM for ALLEA and four other groups of academies is already helping the academies to work together more closely.

Based on the past three meetings, Wegener is confident that his group is well on its way to help make better E.U. policies. “We're 7 months old," he says. "We can’t crawl yet, but we are developing a voice.”