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Jan Marco MüllerJan Marco Müller, a policy officer for international relations in the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Brussels, is currently a visiting sabbatical fellow at the CIRES Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. He served from 2012-2014 as Assistant to Professor Dame Anne Glover, then the Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission. Müller’s research background is in geography; since earning his Ph.D. from the University of Marburg (Germany), he has worked in several prominent environmental research centers including the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig (Germany), the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) in Wallingford (Oxfordshire), and the Institute for Environment and Sustainability in Ispra (Italy), which is one of the seven Institutes constituting the JRC, the European Commission’s in-house science service. Müller helped found the Partnership for European Environmental Research (PEER), the network of Europe’s largest environmental research centres, to which he served as Secretary in the first three years.

Anne Glover served as Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission from 2012 to 2014.

Anne Glover served as Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission from 2012 to 2014.

Beyond the Chief Scientific Adviser

by Dr. Jan Marco Müller

In November 2014 the new President of the European Commission decided not to renew the position of the President’s Chief Scientific Adviser, established by his predecessor in 2012 and which had expired with the end of the previous mandate. This followed several months in which the role was attacked by “green” NGOs, inter alia because the jobholder Professor Dame Anne Glover was very outspoken about the scientific evidence regarding genetically modified organisms and because NGOs felt the role was a potential shortcut for industry lobbyists.

The decision of the President triggered an interesting media feedback in which three kinds of reactions could be identified. First, there were the anticipated reactions of those who had been vocal in either supporting or opposing the role. This included harsh reactions from the scientific community (see Science, The Scientist, BBC, Independent) as well as business (see FreshProduce Journal, Food & Drink Technology, Beverage Daily), but also NGOs celebrating that their campaign had been successful (see CIEL).

Second, commentators mainly from the UK-based media made the connection between the NGO campaign and the decision not to renew the Chief Scientific Adviser post, and argued that the new President had “given in to Greenpeace” and “sacked” the CSA because of her stance on GMOs (see editorial and article in The Times, Independent, Telegraph, The Guardian, The Economist, The Spectator, Herald Scotland, Discover magazine) – without providing any evidence that this was the case. These comments were partly motivated by an anti-EU narrative in the UK, arguing that removing the Chief Scientific Adviser – filled with one of the UK’s highest ranked officials in Brussels – would be against British interests.

The most interesting reaction though was the third one: suddenly editorials about the role of science advice in European policy-making started to appear across Europe, including in influential national newspapers and weekly journals. Major examples included Germany (Frankfurter Allgemeine, Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung), France (RFI), Belgium (De Standaard), the Netherlands (De Volkskrant), Sweden (Svenska Dagbladet), Switzerland (News.ch) and Italy (Il Foglio Quotidiano). The issue also triggered reports and editorials from around the world, most notably in the United States (Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker), Canada (La Presse), China (Xinmin) and Brazil (Carta Capital). This media feedback was highly unusual as the mechanisms of scientific advice to policy-makers generally do not hit the headlines of mainstream media outlets across the globe. Most editorials lamented the role given to science in policy-making and argued that the role had been removed with the aim of silencing an inconvenient voice.

College of European Commissioners, 2014-2019.

College of European Commissioners, 2014-2019.

These arguments ignore that the European Commission has always been committed to evidence-based policies. In fact, it probably relies much more on scientific evidence than national governments because a large part of European policies deals with standardization and harmonization which at the end of the day boil down to science and technology. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that the European Commission has developed over the years strong institutions and processes that ensure a constant delivery of scientific evidence to the policy-makers. This includes most notably the Joint Research Centre (JRC), an in-house science service with more than 3,000 staff, out of which 2,300 are scientists. This in-house resource is complemented by the EU agencies, such as the European Environment Agency (EEA) or the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which play a similar role in the European science advisory system as their US counterparts.

Some believe that the “CSA experiment” in the European Commission has been a failure, as in fact the role has been removed after only three years of existence. However, as can be demonstrated by the European-wide media feedback, the role also triggered discussions about the importance of science advice in Europe and how to deliver it. Not only Brussels embarked on discussions about science advice, but also at the national level, for instance in Finland and the Netherlands, public debates started about the best mechanisms to feed science into policy-making. NGOs suddenly published position papers on science advice in the European Commission and are organizing events about the subject, something not seen in the past. Business is contributing to the discussions as well (see an example) and also the scientific community is playing its part in the debate (see for instance the book “Future directions for science advice in Europe”).

In May 2015 the European Commission announced that the Chief Scientific Adviser would be replaced by a new “Science Advisory Mechanism”. In particular, the Commission announced the establishment of a high-level panel with 7 eminent scientists under the coordination of the Research Commissioner and supported by a Secretariat in the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. The role of this panel will be to match supply and demand of scientific evidence and to translate independent advice coming from the wider scientific community. In contrast to the JRC and the EU agencies, which primarily provide scientific-technical support to the policy-making services of the Commission, the high-level panel of the Science Advisory Mechanism will provide advice to the College of Commissioners, i.e. the political level. In so doing it will rely inter alia on a strategic partnership with the Academies of Sciences in Europe (covering natural sciences, arts and humanities, medicine and engineering).

It is noteworthy that the Commission has not decided to go back to “pre-CSA times”. This shows that apparently the Chief Scientific Adviser fulfilled functions which were felt to be missing. It remains to be seen how the new panel is going to work in practice. Also, the relationship with the existing evidence providers such as the JRC still needs to develop. Still, the establishment of the new Science Advisory Mechanism, complementing an otherwise well-developed science advisory system, shows that the importance of scientific advice to policy in the EU will increase rather than decrease.

Dr. Jan Marco Müller

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the European Commission.