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Science versus politics in the European Union?

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The debate on scientific advisory and future policies is becoming very harsh in the European Union. In the last weeks, an increasing numbers of contributions have created a huge debate about the necessity of a Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) at the European top decision level, as the mandate of Anne Glover is close to its end. Meanwhile, the auditions of the future Commissioners are going not so well at the EU Parliament, as many faced fierce attacks from members of the EU Parliaments. In addition, a letter from the European scientific community put even more pressure on Juncker to stop his intention about switching funds from basic to industry-based research. In brief: the battle over the future of the European Union seems to pass through science, rather than politics. 

The debate over scientific advisory in Europe

Everyone knew that the mandate of the first Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) to the Commission was ending. But many waited to express an opinion on the future of such an important figure, until the Moedas' Mission Letter by President Juncker. That letter, in brief, meant two thing: first of all, a technocrat banker, who never dealt with scientific policies, was put at the head of the scientific policy making and funding process. Then, in the letter was clearly stated that he has the duty of “making sure that Commission proposals and activities are based on sound scientific evidence”; although Juncker now denies to make a decision on the future of the CSA post, it seems clear his opinion on the matter. From this point on, a huge debate arose, sometimes in a hectic way: does Europe really needs a CSA? In the last days of August, an important conference was held in New Zealand about scientific advisory to politicians, where experts investigated lessons from previous experiences.  Meanwhile, some NGOs sent a letter to Juncker, asking him to abolish the CSA post, as it “is fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration”. This letter created a “war of letters” between who was in favour and who was contrary, effectively summarized by The Guardian. Basically, the question was whether a single CSA could offer a neutral views of the state of the art in each scientific area or not: NGOs, such as Greenpeace, said that a single person cannot bear lobbying pressure from powerful multinational companies (often referring directly to Glover's stance in favour of GMOs), while scientists see CSA as a guarantee of independent and evidence-based policy making. The struggle is yet to be finished, but Juncker seems to indicate (indirectly) a preference on not renewing the post of the CSA, a move with deep political implications.

Commissioners under attack

In the last weeks, the clash between Juncker and a large sector of the European scientific community became more severe. Many designated Commissioners are facing strong oppositions while having the traditional auditions at their specific parliamentary commissions. These oppositions are based both on the person Juncker decided to nominate and on general political issues. Although Moedas passed his “examination” after a 3 hours long debate (the main point was his skills for the Science & Technology portfolio), a large majority voted in favour – with the exception of the left parties. The biggest problem came from the Commissioner for Education, Hungarian Tibor Navracsics, who did not pass the audition mainly due to his proximity to Hungarian President Orban, often accused of reducing civil rights. Other four Commissioner are about to follow Navracsics' path. As result, the entire Juncker Commission (and political view) risks not to pass the overall vote at the Parliament general assembly on 22nd October.

Antithetic views

The last, but not the less heavy, attack at the Juncker view of the future of science in Europe came from scientists themselves. In a letter, emotionally entitled “They have chosen ignorance”, they express their fear about a general cut on basic research funds, exactly the policy that Juncker indicates in nominating Moedas as Commissioner of Science and Technology. While Juncker wrote “I would like to focus more on applied research, with a greater participation of the private sector and a special focus on small and medium enterprises, in particular in Horizon 2020, with a view to reinforcing our industrial leadership”, they denounced “[Member States along with European leaders] have chosen to ignore the crucial contribution of a strong research sector to the economy, particularly needed in the countries more severely hit by the economic crisis. This has all happened under the complacent gaze of European institutions, which worry more about Member States complying with austerity measures than about maintaining and improving national R&D infrastructures that can help these countries change their productive model to a more robust one based on knowledge-generation”. The two are non-negotiable, antithetic and culturally opposite views of the European research, namely the future of Europe. Which one will win?

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L’articolo è uscito su The Nation del 14 luglio: https://www.thenation.com/article/society/pandemic-definition-covid/ e ripubblicato su Scienzainrete per gentile concessione della rivista. Scelto e tradotto da Davide Lovisolo.

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