Who speaks for science in Europe?

Questions remain over whether researchers have a coherent enough voice to influence European science policy. Natasha Gilbert reports.

European Union bureaucracy dogs research policy. Credit: F. LENOIR/REUTERS

European scientists don't have too much to complain about these days. More than €50 billion (US$70 billion) is budgeted for research in the European Union's (EU) Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which began in 2007 and runs until 2013. And two years ago, scientists saw the realization of their long-sought dream of a European Research Council (ERC) that would fund frontier research judged solely on excellence.

But still researchers talk about how things could be better. As the debate begins on what the next framework programme should look like (see 'Getting input'), they are asking how they can get their voices heard more effectively.

The problem is how to work effectively within Europe's notorious but necessary constitutional bureaucracy. The European Commission draws up proposals for the framework programme, including the areas of research that it covers, how much money it gets and initiatives such as the ERC. But member states and the European Parliament must give the commission's proposals the green light.

The commission thus has to accommodate a wide range of competing views, including differing national and political priorities as well as the wishes of scientists and industry, says Achilleas Mitsos, who headed the commission's research directorate-general, based in Brussels, between 2000 and 2005. Amid the din, the input of scientists can get lost if it is not provided coherently through an influential outlet.

"There is no homogeneous body through which scientists can speak with one voice," says Dieter Imboden, president of EUROHORCs, a group of the heads of European research councils.

European champion

Some new ideas may help. One that is beginning to gain ground is the possibility of having a chief scientific adviser for Europe, who would inform policy on such matters as energy or genetically modified crops. Insiders say discussions on what such an adviser could do, and how the position could be structured, are expected to begin next month. In theory, this person could serve as a single focal point for scientific input. John Beddington and David King, the current and former science advisers to the UK government, have both publicly touted this idea.

Another idea is to revise the themed approach of the current framework programme to focus instead on broader societal questions. Discussions on this are expected to start next year. At a conference in Lund, Sweden, last month, around 350 researchers and politicians agreed on a joint statement, known as the Lund Declaration, that calls for European research funding to focus on "grand challenges" rather than the "rigid thematic" approach of FP7. The declaration says that academia must have a larger role in identifying these challenges.

Currently, scores of disparate groups, from university organizations and science bodies to research institutions and individual scientists, send suggestions to the commission to help it formulate ideas about what the framework programmes should include. Once the proposals are drawn up, scientists can also comment on them, to a degree that can be almost overwhelming. For example, for FP7 the commission published on its website the opinions of 34 stakeholder groups from academia and industry.

But Helga Nowotny, a vice-president of the ERC's scientific council, says it is not clear what happens to this advice. The way the framework programmes are put together, she says, is not particularly transparent.

Group practice

When it comes to the planning of work for each year of a framework programme, another set of scientific advisers rolls into action. The annual work programmes set out details for specific research topics: for instance, FP7 contains a general commitment to cardiovascular research, but only in the work programme for 2009 is it specified that funding will go to investigating the genetic and environmental factors influencing cardiac arrhythmia.

Fourteen permanent science advisory groups help draw up these work programmes; each covers a different research area, including energy, the environment, and information and communication technologies (ICT). Most members are scientists or representatives of industry, all selected by the commission.

“There is no homogeneous body through which scientists can speak with one voice. ”

The remit and influence of the advisory groups vary considerably. Michael Depledge of the University of Plymouth, UK, chairman of the environmental and climate-change science advisory group, says he has been "frustrated" over what his 20-person group can do. When he joined in 2007 as vice-chairman, the commission had limited the group to commenting on draft work programmes that the commission had already drawn up. When the group wanted to make changes, such as altering the order in which calls for proposals were advertised, the commission told them it was impossible because the programme had already been agreed by member states.

"We ended up just going through the text of the work programme commenting on individual words that may need changing," says Depledge. "The whole group found this completely unsatisfactory. It was just a box-ticking exercise."

When Depledge became chairman six months ago, he decided to shake things up. The group abandoned picking through work programmes and began providing advice on emerging issues that should be covered in future Framework programmes. Depledge says the group will produce a report at the end of this year, and another next year, on the direction it thinks environmental research needs to go. "The commission will then be faced with a situation where, if they ignore our advice, they will have to explain why they did so," he says.

His experience contrasts with that of Chris Hankin, a computer scientist at Imperial College London and a member of the nearly-40-person advisory group for ICT. Unlike Depledge, whose group meets four times a year, Hankin says he is in Brussels nearly every month. He is currently involved in two projects for the group: one looking at what ICT research should be funded in the last two years of FP7, and the other on future and emerging technologies. The group has also produced reports on how ICT is likely to change over the next ten years. In all these cases, the work has been done because the commission requested advice. "We are involved much earlier in the process of developing the work programmes than other advisory groups," Hankin says.

This is because the groups deal with different sections of the commission, he says, some of which are "more proactive in seeking advice", and because his group has a long history of being active.

Historical inertia

Overall, however, inadequate input from scientists has left successive Framework programmes "dominated by historical inertia", says Luke Georghiou, an expert in European science policy at Manchester University, UK. "If a research area is already in, it will tend to stay in the next programme," he says. For instance, his analyses suggest that the proportion of funds for research allocated to each of the nine high-level priorities of the first six framework programmes have stayed essentially constant since the first one began in 1984.

Imboden says scientists need to take responsibility for the "deficiency" in their contributions. "I don't think there is much reason to blame the commission here," he says. A different opinion is voiced in an independent evaluation of FP6, which ran from 2002 to 2006. The report, published in February, concluded that "more transparent consultation with stakeholder communities … would have produced a more robust overall FP design".

Mitsos says the commission has always interacted with the broader scientific community, including holding meetings with various university and academic bodies. He cites the creation of the ERC as a good idea that sprang from the community. "I don't accept that the channels of communication are not there," he says. "The question is, to what extent is the commission listening or is able to transform what it hears into specific proposals?"

Janez Potočnik, the EU research commissioner, says the commission needs "more clear, strategic thinking about what is in front of us". How to do that will take more work, he says; he favours discussing the idea of a European chief science adviser, but notes that having one key person as contact could potentially shut out other scientific opinions. And as for revising the way framework programmes are put together, he says, "premature debate over FP8 would hinder rather than help".

For advice on longer-term science strategies, the commission has its own advisory body of 22 scientists and science-policy experts, now called the European Research Area Board (ERAB). But some question its effectiveness. Nowotny, who chaired the body in its former life as the European Research Advisory Board, says the commission didn't use the board much. "Rarely did the commission ask us for advice on specific issues," she says.

According to John Wood of Imperial College London, the chairman of ERAB, the commission is now readier to ask. For example, the commission recently asked ERAB to "think outside the box" on what the EU research landscape should look like. Its report is due to be published in September, and will include recommendations on the use of independent science advice, future Framework programmes and how funds for research should be distributed.

Wood says the board has a direct link to the commission because he regularly meets with Potočnik. But he is not sure what happens to its advice after this. "It's very opaque," he says.

In addition to its permanent groups that provide advice, the commission also sets up ad hoc advisory bodies to help it. Georghiou has been involved in a number of these and says their recommendations have been followed to varying extents. "Success factors are having the right message at the right time and making sure it is delivered," he says.

Having the ear of influential people is also crucial. Last year, for example, Georghiou chaired an expert group for the commission which suggested, as the Lund Declaration did, that funding should focus on grand challenges. "It seems likely that the next framework programme will look very different and will have this grand-challenge element," he says.

Yet the question still remains, Imboden says, of who speaks for science in Europe. One answer might be beginning to emerge: on 24 June, Georghiou co-chaired a meeting of a pilot forum that brought together the key EU science and academic bodies, including ERAB, EUROHORCs and the European University Association. The meeting discussed a vision for the European Research Area, including what the next FP should look like.

There is "strong support" for the forum to become a more permanent body, Georghiou says. And that could end up as the space for Europe's disparate science voices to come together as a coherent whole.

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Gilbert, N. Who speaks for science in Europe?. Nature 460, 672–673 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/460672a

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