News: AAAS 2013 Annual Meeting News
European Science Policy on the Move
Despite - or perhaps because of - the current fiscal climate in Europe, policy makers are now recognizing the importance of science for the European Union’s future, experts agreed at the AAAS Annual Meeting.
A Topical Panel discussion brought together four leaders from European agencies or government posts devoted to supporting scientific research and innovation in Europe.
Collectively, the panelists are working to coax the EU away from a system in which most scientific research has been supported at the state level, with relatively few opportunities for international collaboration. In this “top down” system, governments tend to decide the directions research should take, and critics have argued that scientists have less incentive to perform world-class research than they would if they had to compete more vigorously for resources.
Panel members Robert-Jan Smits, Helga Nowotny, Anne Glover, and Paul Boyle. Credit: AAAS Staff.
The new efforts underway aim to create a research environment in which competition and collaboration across country lines are encouraged, research is funded based solely its own merits, and scientific evidence guides policy-making.
Paul Boyle, President of Science Europe and Chief Executive of the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council, noted that the AAAS Annual Meeting was occurring at a time when “so much is about to change” in European science policy.
In some ways, this process of change, reflecting a growing appreciation for the economic and social benefits of science, has already begun. For example, the European Commission in 2011 created a new position, Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Commission President, and appointed former biologist Anne Glover to fill it.
Glover joined the AAAS panel along with Boyle, whose organization, Science Europe, was also founded in 2011, to support and coordinate among some 50 funding agencies across Europe. Their co-panelist Helga Nowotny is President of the European Research Council, a funding agency that was started in 2007. Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s Director-General in the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, rounded out the discussion, describing a new EU research funding program, called Horizon 2020, which is set to launch in 2014.
As the president of Science Europe, which promotes the collective interests of its research-performing and funding member organizations, Boyle emphasized the importance of open-access publishing. Making peer-reviewed research, much of which is government-funded, freely available online has “huge potential” for encouraging better science in the EU, Boyle said.
Research results are also of great interest to Glover, who argued that government policies should be guided by the best available scientific evidence.
“I know that our world is not just based on evidence, nor should it be, and that scientists are not responsible for making [policy] decisions. Where I feel we’re in the wrong place is that at the moment we are very relaxed and quite cavalier sometimes about the evidence,” she said.
Anne Glover. Credit: AAAS Staff.
Even when heads of state make policies that deviate from the available scientific evidence, Glover would like them to nonetheless state that “’we accept the evidence, but for other reasons - political, social, economic reasons -- we go in this direction.’ That will stimulate much better dialogue with citizens in enabling the use of new technologies,” she said.
Another positive development for science in the EU, according to Nowotny, is the success of the European Research Council (ERC), which was the first agency to fund basic research across the entire EU. The ERC awards grants based solely on the excellence of the research described in proposals, regardless of the scientists’ geographical location or their scientific discipline.
“Now for the first time the competition is entirely open,” Nowotny said. “You compete against the very best and in a fair, transparent way.”
The ERC especially supports its early-career grantees, and this focus on the next generation of researchers is just one reason that it makes sense to fund science even in times of austerity, she said.
“Science has a long-term vision and is an open-ended process,” Nowotny said, arguing that Europe should invest now in order to “aim for benefits in the future.”
Smits has been using a similar argument to advocate for the new EU-level funding initiative, Horizon 2020. He reported that a 25% increase for the European Commission’s science budget had been approved, although it is still being negotiated in the European Parliament.
This increase reflects the European finance ministers’ appreciation that “science innovation is the key” to resolving the current economic crisis, according to Smits. The success of this effort also due to scientists’ willingness to speak out publicly in its support, which they had not done during prior budget negotiations, he said.
When moderator and AAAS President William H. Press asked whether the panelists ever worry about how their efforts will fare during difficult economic times, Nowotny acknowledged that in some EU member countries -- including some of the newer additions -- for historic reasons investment in research and innovation is much lower than in others.
“There is a danger of a divide becoming much stronger in Europe,” she said.
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