Science for policy ecosystems in Europe need improvements to be able to respond to all potential crises. In order to do so, how can we better connect science for policy systems across Europe? This question was debated by experts in the field of science and policy at an event organised by the Netherlands house for Education and Research (Neth-ER) and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

'Closing the gap between science and policy in transitional societies'

The need to discuss science for policy

In our fast-changing society a better connected national ánd European ecosystem is needed. This requires continuing and renewed efforts from policymakers and the scientific community, panellists agreed during the event ‘Science for Policy in EU member states: what can we learn from each other?’, organised by the Netherlands house for Education and Research (Neth-ER) and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). In the opening speech, director of Neth-ER Jurgen Rienks stated the turbulent times we live in underscore the urgent need for policymakers and politicians to base their short and long-term decisions on sound science advice. If action on connecting ecosystems is taken now, during the next crisis policymakers and scientists are hopefully able to say: “We saw that one coming.’’

Stimulating debates on science for policy across Europe 

To work towards a better connected science for policy ecosystem three challenges should be addressed. First, the need to better connect science and policy through boundary organisations. Second, equipping scientists and policymakers with professional competences on science for policy. And third, improving the governance of science for policy. This is the message in the Staff Working Document 'Supporting and connecting policymaking in the Member States with scientific research', presented by Lorenzo Melchor Fernandez (Policy Analyst, Joint Research Centre) and Alessandro Allegra (Policy Assistant, Deputy Director-General for Research & Innovation). The document is a reflection on the challenges of science for policy and presents possible solutions and aims to promote national and European debate on improving science for policy. The Staff Working Document does not present a one-size-fits-all approach, but encourages further debate on science for policy that takes the national context into account.

Commission wants to take measures to improve science for policy

To tackle the challenges at hand, the EU aims to support science-based policy advice by improving institutional capacity and professional networks, to support knowledge on the science for policy ecosystems and to facilitate sharing best practices. Fernandez argues solid science for policy requires simultaneous action by both the scientific community and policymakers. That’s why the EU wants to improve intersectoral understanding, for example by exploring the possibility of supporting intersectoral mobility exchange between academic and government institutions. In the implementation of the European Research Area, especially in the area knowledge valorisation, the Commission feels science for policy competences should be better rewarded in research assessments.

Responding to the Staff Working Document 

The panel discussion during the event was moderated by Anne-Greet Keizer, research fellow and international liaison at the Netherlands Scientific Council for government policy. Marileen Dogterom, President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences, confirmed that the publication of the document is very timely. In parallel to assessing ecosystems on the national level, she stressed, these ecosystems also need to be aligned with the ecosystem in Europe to enable organisations in the future to collectively advise the European institutions as well. Jaakko Kuosmanen, Chief Coordinator of the Science Advice Initiative of Finland, called the document a ‘brilliant synthesis’ of the work being done on science for policy in Europe and suggested a possible future edition would benefit from an even greater focus on the limits of science for policy and how to deal with these. Liina Eek, RITA programme manager at the Estonian Research Council, would like to see more discussion about the new conditions for science for policy in a post-normal and post-truth society, but overall considered the document to be a very well-prepared and comprehensive overview of the current situation.

The challenges in the member states: the Netherlands

Countries take different approaches to science for policy ecosystems and experience similar as well as country-specific challenges. Dogterom explained the Netherlands already has a rich system to build on. There are many advisory bodies, such as the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and other boundary organisations that connect ministries and science. However, in unexpected situations like the pandemic, it is unclear whose responsibility it is to provide a quick response to an advisory request. Furthermore, she added gathering expertise from different scientific backgrounds, not just the medical perspective, took too long.

The challenges in the member states: Finland

Finland mapped the whole ecosystem of actors within science for policy and enables dialogues between those actors. Kuosmanen explained how the Finnish Science Advice Initiative helped the government and scientific community to actively experiment with new ways to connect science and policy. He witnessed how science for policy can work very well within separate clusters and organisations, but in the ecosystem as a whole, there is often a disconnect between isolated efforts. Big improvements can be achieved with regard to this disconnect. Thus, the challenges should be more openly discussed to identify opportunities in the science for policy ecosystems that might bring actors closer together.

The challenges in the member states: Estonia

Estonia is taking great effort to optimise their existing systems in order to incorporate support for science for policy. The Estonian government already has science advisors working in all ministries, coordinated by the Research Council and the Ministry of Science and Education. Both Estonia and the Netherlands participate in a project of the Commission about ‘Building capacity for evidence-informed policymaking in governance and public administration in a post-pandemic Europe’, a two-year project to improve science for policy ecosystems in seven member states. This is a great opportunity for Estonia to critically assess its system and analyse where improvements can be made. Estonia is not aiming to establish new institutions or instruments but rather to make existing systems more effective. They want to use the knowledge of other member states and support instruments such as knowledge and competence centres and training courses.

Looking ahead to the next Commission term

Jacques Verraes, Deputy Head of Unit of DG RTD’s Science Advice Mechanism, agreed with the speakers and panel members about the need for science for policy to meet the challenges of a changing society. Societies are transitioning to a new normal and science for policy is part of the dialogue between policymakers and society. However, in order to have this conversation, the EU and its member states should first agree on a common language and terminology. This is currently lacking. For now, the EU can only build on existing policies and instruments, but with the Staff Working Document in hand, the Commission can start proposing new policies to improve the science for policy ecosystem in the next term. Hence, Verraes is sure the debate about science for policy will continue over the coming months and years. One of the next opportunities to carry the discussion forward will be a major European conference on science for policy on 10 and 11 October 2023.

Written by Hannelore Schouwstra.