International Science Advice, the EASAC view

Thierry J.-L. Courvoisier

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

Oslo, February 6 2019

Science advice is a difficult activity. Part of the difficulty is due to the fact that it is addressed to people with little affinity for science. Indeed, most often, political actors have followed curricula that are closer to economics, political sciences or jus than to physics or mathematics, chemistry or biology. And it is likely that they have followed these paths at school and university on purpose, in order to be far from science. It is therefore necessary to make efforts to bring closer together communities that have grown far apart since the earliest years of schooling.

In EASAC, the European Academies Science Advisory Council, we approach science advice by synthetizing the available knowledge pertinent for issues on which European policies are being discussed and designed. Once a report is available we make all we can to make its conclusions heard where they must be known. This may be at the level of directors or directors general or commissioners within the European Commission, or in the European parliament or in other European and national organisations dealing with the object of the report.

EASAC together with the Norwegian Academy of Sciences successfully organised one position and an office in Brussels to contribute to making the work of EASAC known and appreciated in European organisations. While this is an important achievement for academies, it remains in no proportion to what large concerns invest in terms of lobbying in Brussels. The Volkswagen Brussels office is, only as an example, located in a prestigious building just opposite the commission’s main offices. The disparity between the resources available to the science academies and those of major economic players explains in no small part why the influence of truly independent science is so modest compared to the voices expressing large economic or financial interests on the major political scenes.

A further difficulty that we meet when addressing current problems lies in that the issues on which science is to bring insights concern the continent or the planet, while the modern power structure is such that most of the decision making capacity is in national institutions. Climate, biodiversity and energy issues are a prime example here. The atmosphere or the oceanic currents know no national boundaries. Finding solutions to global questions requires a global governance, not a set of national decisions negotiated in international arenas, where the participants are representing their governments, which are elected to defend national interests, not to foster a common global well being.

Europe is privileged in this respect as it does have institutions, the Commission and to some extent the European parliament, that are truly continental, by opposition to the European Council where national interests prevail.

It can be mentioned here that the perspective of a European construction is easier to contemplate from the vantage point of small states, like Switzerland or Norway that know their insignificance on the world scene, rather than from large European states where some at least think that their nation plays on a level with the large world actors that are the US, China, India or Russia.

Interestingly, EASAC, although it is constituted of national science academies, is functioning as a truly European organisation in which national accents are seldom if at all heard. In that sense it is a very strong asset of the European science advice scene. The reports it publishes are of the highest quality and although they are written by committees, reviewed by a number of peers and approved by all national academies, they remain forceful in their recommendations, and, sometimes influential. A prime example is a report on neonicotinoids that emphasised the fact that not only honey bees are sensitive to these products but that also wild bees and other pollinating insects suffer from the effects of theses chemicals. This strong conclusion was a key element to make the European legislation evolve towards a ban of these products.

The way to a satisfactory science advice scene on the planet is still long. It will require the build up of a truly planetary governance, a large increase in the means available to make independent science voices heard, and efforts to increase the trust that the political and science communities have in one another.