Science & Environment

Top science panel to advise European Commission

Concept image Image copyright Thinkstock

A high level group of scientists is to be recruited to provide independent advice to the European Commission.

The panel will supersede the role of chief scientific advisor that was controversially abolished last year by new EC President Jean-Claude Juncker.

The commission wants also to strengthen its relationship with the national academies across Europe.

Mr Juncker believes the reforms will be a better mechanism to ensure EU policies are evidence-based.

The former Luxembourg prime minister outlined the new system when he met a group of Nobel Laureates on Wednesday in Brussels.

These eminent scientists, who included UK Royal Society President Sir Paul Nurse, have been highly critical of the decision to drop the CSA role.

They interpreted the post's demise as a downgrading of the value of scientific advice within the commission.

After the meeting, Sir Paul said the delegation was encouraged by the development but that its success would depend on the detail and the execution.

The outgoing CSA, Scottish biologist Anne Glover, often complained about a lack of resourcing and staff.

The laureates believe the secretariat supporting the incoming expert panel must be given sufficient funding.

'Transparent' working

Implementation of the new mechanism will be the job of Carlos Moedas, the European commissioner for research, science and innovation.

He has spent the past few months investigating the routes to scientific advice for the EC.

Mr Moedas has taken the view that the EU's executive arm already has some excellent internal guidance - for example from the EC's in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre.

Image copyright Etienne Ansotte
Image caption Sir Paul: Confident that progress on funding can be made

He has, however, always recognised the need for an additional layer of assistance - one that is truly independent of the Brussels machine, and transparent.

Mr Moedas will now set about recruiting the new expert group and better linking the EC to the expertise found in Europe's academies and learned societies.

The commissioner has given himself an autumn deadline.

The panel will have seven individuals on it, and they will come from a range of disciplines, including the social sciences.

"One of the things about science advice is that it has to be totally independent, so our view is that the members of this panel should not be employees of the commission," Mr Moedas told reporters.

"They will keep their positions as independent scientists. There will be total transparency in this system, so you will have information about all the work in this panel… and, of course, as independent scientists they can talk to the press."

He added that staff and several million euros per year would be found to support the panel and to facilitate contacts and exchange of information with the external academies.

'Right approach, wrong funding'

Wednesday's meeting with Mr Juncker was also an opportunity for the visiting group of internationally awarded scientists (Jules Hoffmann, Serge Haroche, László Lovász, Jean Tirole and Edvard Ingjald Moser, and Sir Paul) to discuss the European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI).

This is a stimulus package designed to invigorate the flagging EU economy.

Various areas of the EU budget are making a contribution, but it is the money being taken from science pot (Horizon 2020) that has so exercised the research leaders.

They think it sends the wrong signal about the importance Europe places on R&D.

Mr Juncker tried to reassure them that the slice being taken from Horizon 2020 would actually pay dividends in the long run. And he told them that he was working to make sure that any potential short-term impact on fundamental research was minimised as much as possible.

Sir Paul said his fellow scientists had no objection to the EFSI; indeed, they thought it a very good idea. However, using Horizon 2020 money was not the way to fund it.

"Science, and the generation of knowledge, is at the basis of all sustainable economic growth and the public good, and to cut it at all is a bad thing," he argued.

"And we are seeing movement to try and reduce those cuts. We, of course, would like to see those cuts kept to a minimum, and we will continue to work in that direction. But it was a meeting of minds, and I'm optimistic that we will at least make some good progress in achieving [the right] outcome on science funding."

Positive direction

Dermot Kelleher, president of the Federation of European Academies of Medicine, said he "very much welcomed" the proposal to involve Europe's many eminent academies more directly in scientific advice.

He said that the two proposals, of a formal scheme for advice from the academies as well as an appointed expert panel, would hopefully prove complementary.

"It's possible that the internal panel might at times disagree with the advice given by the academies, but I think it's more likely that we would be able to reach a consensus," Prof Kelleher told the BBC.

He also noted that the new system, if it is well structured and resourced, could prove useful for avoiding controversies like the Horizon 2020 funding dispute, which scientists saw as a "raid" on their research budget.

"We think this is a really good opportunity to begin to try and shape things in a proactive way, rather than coming in retrospectively and trying to fix problems that we believe have arisen," said Prof Kelleher, from Imperial College London and a fellow of the UK's Academy of Medical Sciences.

"So if you take the issues around Horizon 2020 - the involvement of academies in science advice might allow those decisions to be made in a more consensual way. I think that's positive."

The EFSI aims to generate at least 315bn euros - from both public and private funds - for investment across the European Union.

The proposal is that Horizon 2020 will contribute 2.7bn, or 3.5% of its total budget, with key programmes such as the European Research Council and the Marie Curie Actions (fellowships) redeploying less than 2% of their monies.

Image copyright Etienne Ansotte
Image caption President Juncker (front, third from right) meets the delegation of eminent scientists

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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