EU membership and UK science Contents

Chapter 3: Scientific advice and influence

40.The provision of authoritative scientific advice is central to the formulation of effective, evidence-based policy. A defective system of scientific advice will be likely to result in sub-optimal policy-making and legislation. We therefore sought views on the EU system of scientific advice in order to determine whether it was appropriate. If the system of EU scientific advice is inadequate, then it could mean, for example, that the UK is faced with transposing ill-conceived EU directives into UK law. Moreover, given the widely admired system of scientific advice in the UK, it would be perverse if the UK were to suffer at the hands of a less mature EU system.

Scientific advice for EU policy-making

41.The UK has been, and continues to be, a leading voice in the EU striving for the provision and use of scientific advice. The UK system and the system that operates within the EU are different. In the UK, there is a Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) with responsibility for: providing scientific advice to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet; advising the Government on matters of science and technology policy; and ensuring and improving the quality and use of scientific evidence and advice across government. The GCSA is also head of the Science and Engineering Profession and is charged with leading the profession within the Civil Service, encouraging good practice and ensuring the development of professional skills. The role of GCSA has existed since 1964.

42.The GCSA is supported by a network of departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs). CSAs are a vitally important voice for science and engineering in the formulation, operation and evaluation of government policy. They provide independent challenge and seek to ensure that policy decisions are informed by authoritative science and engineering advice and evidence.

43.A model somewhat similar to that in operation in the UK was tested in the EU during the closing years of José Manuel Barroso’s tenure as President of the European Commission (2004–14). A UK scientist—Professor Dame Anne Glover—fulfilled the role of Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission. This role, however, was not renewed when President Juncker assumed the role of European Commission President in 2014. Instead, after a period of uncertainty, during which widespread concerns were expressed by the UK science community, a new method of scientific advice, termed the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM), was devised.25

44.The purpose of the SAM is to provide authoritative, timely and independent scientific advice to the European Commission. The SAM will draw on a wide range of scientific expertise through close relationships with national academies and other bodies, as well as the expertise of a High Level Group of independent scientific advisers. This High Level Group (HLG) is fundamental to the SAM. Established by a Commission Decision of 16 October 2015,26 the HLG is composed of seven experts, appointed in their personal capacity, who act independently and in the public interest. The group is expected to meet between four to six times per year, but may also be convened for additional meetings if urgent advice is required. The HLG will designate, on an annual basis, a chairperson and a deputy chairperson. One member of the HLG is from the UK, Met Office Chief Scientist, Professor Dame Julia Slingo. Dame Julia summarised the HLG’s fundamental purpose as follows:

“The Chair of the HLG will represent our views to the Commission; they will be the views of the HLG, they will be published and then it is up to the Commission to use them in the best way they can.”27

45.Figure 1 below sets out how it is intended that the SAM operates.

Figure 1: Operation of the Scientific Advice Mechanism

Diagram of the operation of the Scientific Advice Mechanism

Source: European Commission, About the Scientific Advice Mechanism (November 2015): [accessed 12 April 2016]

46.The SAM secretariat will facilitate the HLG’s access to scientific evidence. Crucially, the SAM will have greater staffing and financial resources than Professor Dame Anne Glover was equipped with during her tenure at the European Commission.

47.It is certainly a positive move that the Joint Research Centre and the SAM will be brought together. The European Commission described its plans in this area:

“The Joint Research Centre (JRC) has a mission ‘to support EU policies with independent evidence throughout the whole policy cycle’. It does this through a diversity of science and research-based activities to support and advise fellow policy departments in the Commission in areas like environment, energy, transport, finance, health, security, agriculture and food …

Practical arrangements are being put in place to ensure strong complementarities between the independent advice from the SAM and the in-house expertise of the Joint Research Centre. To support this aim, a number of staff have been seconded into the SAM Secretariat.”28

48.Clare Moody MEP told us that the prospects for the SAM were positive, not least because it will be appropriately staffed and integrated:

“While there were considerable concerns about the announcement of the abolition of the post of CSA the SAM is better placed to be embedded more deeply into the work of the Commission. Firstly SAM is fully staffed with a Commission department; it will provide a broader scope of scientific input and it is properly integrated into the institutional framework of the Commission’s policy development process.”29

49.The UK science community seemed to be broadly optimistic about the prospects for the SAM, albeit that it is a body in its infancy and presently it is almost certainly the case that “the jury is out.”30 Professor Robin Grimes, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), told us: “I am very positive that this is going in the right direction.”31 Professor Alex Halliday, Vice-President, Royal Society, argued that the SAM: “does offer some strategic advantages for the UK. Apart from anything else, we have Julia Slingo sitting on it as one of the seven members of the Committee.”32 The Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson MP, was also positive about the development of the SAM:

“It is good that EU policy-making is going to be informed by the best possible scientific evidence. We welcome this direction of travel. Commissioner Moedas is taking lots of positive steps in this respect, and a lot of his work should be warmly welcomed.”33

50.We harboured some concerns initially, especially about the extent to which the HLG would be a purely reactive body. These concerns, however, softened as our inquiry progressed. Professor Dame Anne Glover told us that the HLG “will absolutely have the ability to identify areas that are not brought to them that they identify independently and understand need attention.”34 Professor Dame Julia Slingo herself reported to us, shortly after the first meeting of the SAM on 29 January 2016, that:

“For the bulk of our work we will be tasked by the Commission to provide scientific advice based on the work programme of the Commission. We also have the opportunity to put forward topics ourselves, and we will do so where we believe there is a need for some horizon-scanning or maybe a Foresight-type of report on what we believe to be the emerging big issues around science for the European Union.”35

51.We sought explicit assurances on this issue and the role of the HLG from the European Commission. The Commission told us that the task of the HLG is to:

“provide the Commission with independent scientific advice on specific policy issues where such advice is critical to the development of EU policies or legislation and does not duplicate advice being provided by existing bodies and;

support the Commission in identifying specific policy issues where independent scientific advice is needed …

The Commission may consult the group at any time on any policy field, defining the timespan in which advice is needed and;

The chairperson of the group may advise the Commission to consult the group on a specific policy issue.

The SAM HLG may thus advise the Commission on the identification of specific policy issues requiring independent scientific advice.”36

52.This offers some reassurance; it is imperative that the HLG is not just a creature of the Commission and that it is empowered to identify areas where advice is required. And yet, at this very early stage in the SAM’s development, it is impossible to foresee how relations will unfold. As the British Academy told us:

“It remains to be determined how in practice it [the HLG] will operate and what the balance will be between work in response to requests from the Commission and ‘own initiative contributions’.”37

53.We are not concerned that the Commission has selected a scientific advice model different to the UK model; we accept that there are many ways in which the provision of scientific advice might be organised. As Professor Dame Anne Glover put it to us: “If you look across the European Union, there are 28 Member States and probably about 26 different mechanisms for provision of science advice.”38 Professor Robin Grimes informed us that:

“Other countries, Germany and France for example, have different structures for carrying out science and a different emphasis on where their research is carried out, and as a consequence it is not necessarily true that a mechanism like the [UK] chief scientific advisers’ network would be appropriate for those countries.”39

54.Whilst it is very welcome that the Commission seems to have made sound initial progress with ensuring that it has access to authoritative, independent scientific advice, it is certainly not before time. Indeed, it is puzzling that the issue of the provision of formal scientific advice has only been taken up so recently. Nevertheless, we are greatly encouraged by the eminent membership of the HLG, and are particularly pleased to see that a social scientist has been appointed. Furthermore, we extend our congratulations to Professor Dame Julia Slingo and wish her well on the HLG.

55.We welcome the development of the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) and the presence of a UK scientist, Professor Dame Julia Slingo, on the membership of the High Level Group. The SAM, however, is in its infancy and it remains to be seen how effective and influential it will prove to be. It is vital that its early promise is fulfilled. The progress of the SAM must be monitored carefully and we will keep a watching brief in this area, and trust that others will do the same, not least the UK scientific community.

56.In addition to the provision of advice to the Commission, we also briefly explored whether the other EU institutions, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union (sometimes still referred to as the Council of Ministers) had access to appropriate scientific advice. Professor Dame Anne Glover explained to us that:

“At the moment, the Council of Ministers does not have formal science advice. What it relies upon is science advice from its own Member State, and whatever mechanism that happens to be.”40

57.The European Commission confirmed that:

“There is at present no formal structure which provides scientific advice to the Council of the European Union. However, in many Member States the Academies and Learned Societies play an important role in advising governments and the SAM will also engage these bodies.”41

58.We have given consideration as to whether the remit of the SAM should be extended to include the provision of scientific advice to the Council of the European Union. With the SAM so newly established and unproven, however, it would be unwise to transform its remit at this juncture. Moreover, it seems to us to be a perfectly appropriate arrangement that national ministers attending the Council draw on their national systems of scientific advice. It will be imperative that the SAM engages with Academies and Learned Societies across Member States, and as such, can ensure that Member States are aware of the SAM’s activities.

59.As regards the provision of science advice in the European Parliament, the European Commission explained to us that:

“The European Parliament has a number of formal structures which enable Members, committees and other bodies to benefit from scientific advice. These include the Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel (STOA). Parliamentary committees may also obtain scientific evidence from the Policy Departments, within the Directorates-General of committee secretariats for Internal and External Policies, and individual MEPs may request briefings from the Members Research Service.”42

60.We received evidence suggesting that the environment in the Parliament was not necessarily conducive to the sober consideration of scientific advice. Stuart Pritchard, EU Affairs Manager, Wellcome Trust, elaborated:

“The Parliament has a number of structures already in place to provide advice to members. Whether that advice always cuts through, I am not sure, because it is a very noisy environment in the Parliament, with a lot of lobbying activity going on and a lot of conflicting advice. For me, one of the challenges for parliamentarians is how they find evidence that is sufficiently robust to inform discussions when they are being bombarded by huge amounts of information. Having some further strengthening and rigour in the advice provided to members to counteract that would be a helpful addition to the discussions, if it is organised in the right way.”43

61.We merely note these observations. Any change or new initiatives in this area are a matter for the European Parliament.

UK influence on EU policy for science

62.Throughout our inquiry, it was repeatedly argued that UK scientists have considerable influence on EU groupings and decision-making bodies, and therefore played a considerable role in shaping EU policy for science.

63.Clare Moody MEP argued that she had “seen first-hand the direct and substantial contribution made by UK scientists to EU scientific advice in policy making.”44 Professor Paul Boyle, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Leicester, asserted:

“Our voice is very strong in the discussions prior to the decision-making around what the different priorities should be. We have had a very influential role in helping to shape those decisions.”45

64.Professor Dame Anne Glover told us:

“The UK voice is very welcome, very loud, very credible, and it is acted upon [in the EU]. We chair many of the influential committees and, regarding identifying members of the council of the European Research Council, we have members on that council. We help to deliver policy in science funding and where it is spent.”46

Dame Anne added that:

“We have probably more than our fair share of chairs of committees, which are opinion-forming. We have a large membership of committees.”47

65.Professor Robin Grimes, Chief Scientific Adviser FCO, reported that:

“We work hard to ensure that the scope of Framework Programmes is in line with UK priorities; and because the UK has many world-recognised scientists, UK scientists occupy key positions in a range of EU research and advisory bodies.”48

66.The European Commission told us that while there is no quantitative analysis produced on the UK’s percentage share of committees and positions, examples of UK nationals participating in key advisory bodies and expert groups, including those where the UK itself proposes the nominations, included the following:

“Professor Dame Julia Slingo, Chief Scientist of the UK Met Office, is one of the seven member strong high level group for the Commission’s new Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM);

Prof Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, is one of the current 18 members of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council;

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, is the Chair of the ERC [European Research Council] Identification Committee for identifying potential new members of the ERC Scientific Council;

Dr Claire Craig from the Royal Society is a member of the Governing Board of the Joint Research Centre;

Of the 31 in total members of the high level expert group RISE [Research and Innovation Staff Exchange] for research, science and innovation, five are from the UK or currently working at UK institutions;

46 UK nationals are currently members of Advisory Groups (AGs) which provide input for the preparation of the Horizon 2020 work programme. This is out of a total of 446, or equal to just over 10%. This is the highest number among Member States—Germany has 43. The AGs have recently been re-appointed and are just in the process of selecting their Chairs;

Richard Fowler Pelly from the UK was one of the 12 member High Level Group of experts for the recent ex post evaluation of the Seventh Framework Programme;

The UK has been a significant contributor to the work of the European Research Area and Innovation Committee (ERAC). The current co-Chair, David Wilson of the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) has been instrumental in preparing the ERA [European Research Area] roadmap and the ERA governance document.”49

67.The UK plays an important role in ensuring that excellence remains a key criterion in the allocation of EU funding for science, research and innovation and that there is an appropriate balance between funds awarded on a competitive basis and those awarded on the basis of capacity building. Professor Dame Anne Glover stated that the:

“ERC [European Research Council] funds research purely on the basis of excellence of science. The reason that there is such a strong commitment to that is through ministerial meetings, where the UK has been very active in order to highlight the importance of having a funding instrument which is purely based on excellence. The cohesion Member States may be less keen to see that it is based on excellence because they will have an imperative for capacity building. If there were a Brexit, the voice of one of the most important science Member States of the European Union would not be there influencing how ERC funding was distributed. The top three science Member States are the UK, Germany and France, and we do have a very big voice in all things science at EU level.”50

68.The European Commission confirmed the UK’s commitment to excellence:

“The UK has been amongst the leaders in terms of support to the key policy principles for Horizon 2020 including the defence of excellence as the principal criterion for the allocation of funding, the need for simplification and greater efficiencies with programme implementation including funding models, and the need to ensure open access to publications and data generated by EU funded projects.”51

69.Furthermore, the European Commission told us that: “the UK has been an active contributor through the Horizon 2020 Programme Committee in terms of proposed topics for funding, many of which have been taken up.”52

70.We also heard from Professor Dominic Tildesley, President, Royal Society of Chemistry, that “there is a good alignment between the major research priorities that you see in Europe and in the UK—for example, research into climate change, energy, antimicrobial resistance and healthcare.”53

71.The evidence presented to us clearly argued that the UK plays an influential role in the development of EU policies and decision-making relating to science and research. We would wish to acknowledge, however, that it is difficult to be definitive when assessing influence. Nevertheless, it certainly appears that the UK has a strong voice when it comes to putting a firm UK imprint on EU policy for science. It would seem hard to agree with the view put to us by the Scientists for Britain spokesperson, Professor Angus Dalgleish, that “we get drowned out in the EU.”54

72.Interestingly, however, Dame Julia Slingo, did sound a note of caution vis-à-vis the balance between EU and national priorities:

“I think we have to be very cautious that our own science agenda and our own strategy for science is not taken over too much by what Brussels would like to see done …

Because our science base is so strong nationally and we are excellent in a number of science areas, we want to be careful not to risk weakening our core areas of excellence because we are trying to fit to somebody else’s agenda. For me, it is always about getting the right balance between national interests and the quality of our science base versus what we gain by working more collaboratively in Europe.”55

73.We conclude that the UK plays a leading role in the development of EU policies and decision-making processes that relate to science and research. UK scientists in various EU fora act to ensure that the UK’s voice is clearly heard and that the EU remains aligned with the advancement of UK science, particularly by shaping the balance between funding awarded on the basis of research excellence and that awarded for capacity building.

EU influence on UK international scientific relations

74.Though not a prominent strand of our inquiry, we also heard about the international scientific diplomatic opportunities afforded by our membership of the EU. The UK’s EU membership has an impact on our participation in international fora, including the variety of United Nations’ (UN) bodies that have a scientific dimension.

75.Professor Robin Grimes highlighted how EU membership gave the UK additional purchase when international scientific issues were under discussion:

“There is no formal EU programme called EU Science Diplomacy at the moment, but there are areas where our science evidence will underpin diplomacy that we have carried out bilaterally and as part of the EU, and we are more powerful as a result. A good example of that would be climate diplomacy.”56

76.Professor Grimes highlighted the benefits of being able to negotiate as part of a bloc and the added value that accrued from being able to draw on bilateral, EU and UN approaches:

“I think we gain tremendously from being able to negotiate as part of an EU bloc. We were specifically part of that bloc for the negotiations for COP21, for example, which gave us considerably more clout, and the negotiations were very successful.

However, as I said, we can also have separate negotiations with countries and come to bilateral relationships, and we can act through the UN. I have no doubt that we will continue to make the most of those three areas together, and being part of those three areas gives us a synergy that we are able to exploit more readily. We are also able to gain information from being part of those three groups and to compare and contrast.”57

25 European Commission, Scientific Advice Mechanism (March 2016): [accessed 10 March 2016]. Much of the information that follows is drawn from this source.

26 European Commission, Commission Decision of 16.10.2015 on the setting up of the High Level Group of Scientific Advisers C(2015) 6946 final (October 2015):
.pdf#view=fit&pagemode=none [accessed 10 March 2016]

27 Q 108 (Prof Dame Julia Slingo)

28 Written evidence from the European Commission (EUM0081)

29 Written evidence from Clare Moody MEP (EUM0062)

30 Q 37 (Prof Sir Robert Lechler)

31 Q 118 (Prof Robin Grimes)

32 Q 37 (Prof Alex Halliday)

33 Q 153 (Jo Johnson MP)

34 Q 60 (Prof Dame Anne Glover)

35 Q 108 (Prof Dame Julia Slingo)

36 Written evidence from the European Commission (EUM0081)

37 Supplementary written evidence from the British Academy (EUM0076)

38 Q 53 (Prof Dame Anne Glover)

39 Q 122 (Prof Robin Grimes)

40 Q 53 (Prof Dame Anne Glover)

41 Written evidence from the European Commission (EUM0081)

42 Written evidence from the European Commission (EUM0081)

43 Q 109 (Stuart Pritchard)

44 Written evidence from Clare Moody MEP (EUM0062)

45 Q 10 (Prof Paul Boyle)

46 58 (Prof Dame Anne Glover)

47 Q 59 (Prof Dame Anne Glover)

48 Q 117 (Prof Robin Grimes)

49 Written evidence from the European Commission (EUM0081)

50 Q 56 (Prof Dame Anne Glover)

51 Written evidence from the European Commission (EUM0081)

52 Written evidence form the European Commission (EUM0081)

53 10 (Prof Dominic Tildesley)

54 Q 129 (Prof Angus Dalgleish)

55 Q 113 (Prof Dame Julia Slingo)

56 Q 117 (Prof Robin Grimes)

57 Q 118 (Prof Robin Grimes)

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