Reports

Science and decision-making – A relationship under strain

9 April 2013


In Europe, in many areas of science, we produce the best knowledge available in the world: we excel at science, engineering and technology. But we’re not very good at translating this scientific excellence into real impact for our citizens, argued Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission.

Glover asked whether it is sensible to continue to spend large sums on generating top-quality knowledge but fail to use it, particularly for policymaking. She said that some EU directives compared very well to the scientific evidence available, but other policies bore no resemblance to the evidence.

She argued that industry input into policymaking is necessary, and lamented the increasingly prevalent feelings of suspicion that seem to arise whenever scientists have had contact with industry. But she added that transparency is necessary and said there are always ways to address potential conflicts of interest.

Evidence-based policymaking is an important element of modern regulation. Laws should be based on sound data analysis, and build on practical experience and best practice, said Portuguese Socialist MEP António Fernando Correia de Campos, Chairman of the Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel.

Better regulation implies developing policies that boost competitiveness, keep pace with technological advances, and foster innovation. Policies must maximise benefits while minimising potential problems, for example safety and environmental concerns, Correia de Campos said.

BASF Vice-President Dr Wolfgang Weber said that innovation is needed in order to restore growth – and we should base as many decisions as we can on science.

Stressing the importance of distinguishing between hazard and risk-based legislation to bring forward innovation gently, Weber advised policymakers to see science as a risk-management tool.

There is uncertainty in science, but this uncertainty can be difficult to communicate to the public, who look for something concrete, said Leonardo Palumbo, Policy Coordinator for EU Affairs at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA).

Palumbo said his organisation was not against policymakers engaging with industry, but stressed that they must do so in a transparent manner, including by making conflict of interest declarations. Make decision-making processes known to the public, he advised.

It is difficult to base policies solely on scientific evidence, because political decisions are also taken on the basis of trade-offs between interested parties and indeed according to the personal judgement of policymakers, Palumbo argued.