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3.3  The use of expertise

We need experts to reassure us, to warn us, and to shed light on complex and often controversial issues of the day. Experts help to identify problems, shape policies and stir the public debate on topics as diverse as climate change and genetically modified organisms.

Many channels exist for feeding advice from experts into science-based policy development. The well-structured system of scientific committees now established at the Community level for risk assessments in consumer health and food safety has been mentioned in section 3.2. Elsewhere, there are a variety of international and European mechanisms in policy areas such as air quality (1) , climate change and fisheries. These are complemented by ad hoc arrangements according to the nature, urgency or state of knowledge of the issues to be addressed. Other layers and forms of advisory structures can be found at national level.

Within this framework a distinction can be made between collective, formal advice provided through committees or advisory groups mandated and established by policy-makers, and solicited or unsolicited opinions or findings, such as scientific information, provided by individuals or organisations outside any formal process (which may, nevertheless, assist formal advisory groups in arriving at their conclusions).

Against this diverse background, there is nevertheless a tendency for the process of using expertise to be contested and mistrusted.

Firstly, science is often perceived as dealing with certainty and hard facts, whereas in reality this is rarely the case, particularly at the frontier of research. Scientists are naturally cautious, and the advice they provide is often wrapped in caveats. There may also be more than one school of thought, or there may be maverick voices arguing against the mainstream. There can then be a sense of frustration and despair when experts fail to provide simple answers to apparently simple questions. The conclusion: 'Even the experts don't know what they're talking about!' A more coherent interface is needed between the providers and receivers of advice, with mutual understanding and clear communication between the two.

Scientific advice for the Common Fisheries Policy

The major objective of the Common Fisheries Policy is to promote the sustainable and responsible exploitation of fisheries resources within and outside Community waters. To develop regulations in the light of the best available scientific advice, the Commission relies upon the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, which is responsible for the collection and analysis of biological data relating to fish stocks of the North Atlantic.

The advice of the ICES committee on fish stocks management is then discussed within the Commission's own Scientific Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries. Based on this, the Commission prepares its proposals for regulation, which are later presented to a separate advisory committee which channels the views of stakeholders (fishing industry, consumers, NGOs etc.).

Secondly, policy-makers at all levels do not always find it easy to tap into the resource of knowledge provided by the diversity of scientific cultures and range of specialised centers of excellence in Europe. At worst, they are open to allegations that only 'tame' experts are selected, known to support pre-formed policy decisions. There needs to be a more systematic and open approach, at national and European level, to identify the best expertise at the right time.

Thirdly, advice can appear remote if the public and stakeholders are excluded, and are unable or ill equipped to contribute to the debate and to challenge the experts and the advice they give. There is a need to open up the process by providing opportunities for the voicing of alternative views ('a competition of ideas'), for scrutiny and for constructive debate. Experience shows that when scientific networks link with national regulators, associate representatives of the various stakeholders, including civil society whereappropriate, and operate with transparent procedures the conflict potential of certain issues is largely defused and acceptance of the ensuing regulation increases (2) .

The aim, then, is not only to instil a sense of trust, but also to deliver policies that are more robust.

As previously indicated, the Commission has been responding to these challenges through the revamping of its scientific committees in consumer health and food safety, and the imminent establishment of the European Food Authority.

The Commission now intends to spread good practices and to capitalise on lessons learned from the different policy sectors. For example, much can be done to provide more systematic and readily accessible information for the public on the mandate, membership, deliberations or recommendations of these different structures in all policy areas (study on transparency and openness in scientific advisory committees: STOA, European Parliament, October 1998, PE 167 327/ Fin. St.). A 'one-stop-shop' consolidating these details would also be beneficial for the public.

In developing and implementing the actions below, the Commission will maintain and reinforce a dialogue with Member State administrations, advisory bodies and other actors.

Setting guidelines for the use of expertise at Community level

The White Paper on European Governance identified the need for guidelines on the use of expertise (this flows from the preparatory work on expertise: Democratising expertise and establishing scientific reference systems (group 1b), European Commission, July 2001). These guidelines, to be developed by an interdepartmental working group, will be published from June 2002. They will complement other actions from the White Paper, such as minimum standards for the consultation of civil society. Building on existing practices and experience, the guidelines should set out core principles, particularly for greater openness and accountability in the use of expertise in science-based policy development. The key aim is to establish and maintain the confidence of everyone who may be involved in, or rely on, the process. The guidelines should address, for example, public attendance at expert meetings, publication and scrutiny of advice, and the way in which the Commission explains how subsequent policy proposals take account of advice proffered. They should also provide for a widening of the expert base by encouraging recourse to multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral know-how, and by suggesting mechanisms for the involvement of the public, stakeholders and organised civil society.

Action 36

A set of guidelines will be established for the Commission's own practices in selecting and using expertise for policy-making. They could form the basis of a subsequent proposal for a common approach by other institutions and the Member States, and eventually the accession countries. Co-operation with Member States through a network, workshops, and other dialogue exchanges will enable experiences to be shared and best practices to be spread.

Improving the delivery of scientific support to policy makers

The Commission will continue to develop improved mechanisms for delivering scientific support to policy makers.

These mechanisms should capitalise on the full breadth and diversity of expertise available in Europe. They are intended to enhance the scientific support to policy-making beyond the implementation of formal regulatory procedures. Where relevant, they may be based on networks of researchers such as those created through the RTD Framework Programmes, including the JRC. Such networks should facilitate communication both between scientists themselves, and between scientists and policy-makers. Whilst they would function in conformity with the guidelines mentioned above, particularly with regard to the need for independence, transparency and breadth of know-how, a variety of models will be required to meet the demands of different sectors and time-scales. Two models can be identified now:

The first model combines a network of sources of scientific information with a database of previously prepared scientific conclusions on issues of public concern. The Commission could draw on such a resource when seeking information on specific policy-related questions. In the longer term, it could be made available to other policy-making authorities and to citizens and civil society.

Action 37

A pilot study will be conducted into the creation of an open internet-based network of scientists and organisations concerned with scientific issues. The aim will be to provide information for policy support (SINAPSE).

The second model would consist of organisations or networks capable of providing validated data, harmonised information or support for policy-making. Such European Common Scientific Reference Systems (ECSRS) could play a supporting role in problem identification, policy-shaping, or long-term implementation of regulations. In its core areas of competence the Joint Research Centre will play a catalytic role in the establishment of these ECSRS.

Action 38

The Commission will publish a blueprint for European Common Scientific Reference Systems (ECSRS), setting out their scope and function, together with implementation proposals taking into consideration matters such as quality assurance and links to international systems. By taking stock of the sources of expertise currently used, prototype ECSRS specialising in priority topics will be identified. Further implementation will be supported in the next Framework Programme (2002-2006).

In addition, both models will provide a channel for individual scientists to flag, at an early stage, new developments and issues. This form of "horizon scanning" may trigger additional research to replicate or repudiate the early results, as well as give advance notice to formal risk assessment and risk management mechanisms if these already exist in the sector concerned. The networks could also facilitate the rapid mobilisation of expertise (e.g. "Scientific Help Desk") in response to sudden or unexpected needs, for example, bio-terrorism. 

(1) The Commission recently launched the "Clean Air for Europe" programme (CAFE), seeking to produce an integrated long-term strategy to protect human health and the environment from the effects of air pollution. The main aim of the programme is to coordinate the production, collection and validation of the scientific and technical data needed to elaborate a policy in this area.

(2) Some of the networks that the JRC has set up in response to Member States' request, such as the network of GMO laboratories or the network on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control, provide good examples of this type of interaction.

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