The EU’s new Science Advice Mechanism

August 11, 2016 at 3:48 pm | Posted in Comment | Leave a comment

Mandating science advice

SAM Jan 2016 w900 2 - Georges Boulougouris - EC Audiovisual Service

The new EU Science Advice Mechanism, convening for its inaugural meeting in January 2016.

In July, Science reminded its readers of the existence of the European Commission’s new Science Advice Mechanism (SAM), a panel of internationally-recognised scientists tasked with providing scientific advice, in a mechanism intended to address the shortcomings of the ill-fated, single-headed role of Chief Scientific Adviser abandoned in 2014.

In fact, the SAM has already held its first two panel meetings, on 29 January and 16-17 March this year, at which it was agreed its first two questions would relate to “improving the measurements of CO2 emissions so they more closely resemble real-world emissions” and (more vaguely) cybersecurity and “the single digital market”.

A number of the problems with the initial Chief Scientific Adviser position appear, at least to some extent, to have been resolved: there is now a panel of advisers representing diverse interests and backgrounds; they have a reasonable budget; and they have a much larger team of support staff to do the research on which their advice will be based (see the legislative mandate here).

Problems of budget and staffing are relatively trivial, however, compared to the challenge of giving the SAM appropriate mandate and oversight, to ensure that it complements rather than supplants the political process.

This is important because, while it is intuitive to say that policy should in some way follow the evidence, it is in fact only in some very specific circumstances (sometimes described as “tornado politics”) possible or appropriate for “the evidence” to play a decisive role in what the appropriate policy outcome is (and even then, with certain important caveats).

This is because when people disagree it is very often due to their wanting different outcomes, not because they interpret “the evidence” in different ways. Resolving disagreement and defining a mutually acceptable course of action is what politics is for; if the job is handed over to scientists (or handed over further still, to some dictat of “the evidence”), the political solution is short-circuited and there is a deficit of democracy.

Keeping politics separate from science is therefore important. Political processes should be transparent, not masked behind a supposedly scientific debate which is in reality determining a political outcome. Conversely, if science is a proxy battleground for politics, its value in understanding our factual environment, the consequences of our actions, and the mechanisms by which we can most likely expect to achieve our desired goals, becomes diminished.

However, only so much can be done in defining how the SAM should function; it is as much up to the recipients of advice from the SAM as it is up to the SAM itself that its pronouncements are not taken as determining outcomes when politics is required instead. As to whether and how that happens, only time will tell.

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