Editorial – Advising on Science

By . Published on 28 July 2015 in:
Editorial, July 2015, , ,

One essential question today is how much responsibility must scientists take in advising politicians on science policy issues and other society challenges.

In an article that appeared in EPN45/3 in 2014, entitled ‘Climate change can we afford to wait longer?‘ I expressed my personal view on the need to communicate on important and timely environmental issues. This was an easy process since this opinion was that of a single author. In the meantime, the EPS has published a position paper written by its Energy Group on the ‘European Energy Policy and Global Reduction of CO2 emissions: Towards an effective sustainable electricity production in Europe’. The document focuses on electricity production by non-fossil sources. It puts European Energy Policy in the broader context of the world energy and climate problem and highlights important points in the discussion on a greener energy future that require special attention. Merging the different points of view of all involved parties appeared to be an almost impossible task but a final version was agreed on and sent out to policy makers in Brussels and to all presidents of our Members Societies. This success happened once the EPS Council accepted some modifications of its endorsement procedure for EPS position papers and statements. Indeed the need to reach a consensus on critical scientific-related issues is very important but has also the drawback of being too slow with the danger of missing the initial goals of the document. In this particular case let’s hope that a measurable impact will be achieved before the UN Conference on Climate Change to be held in December in Paris. The Pope Francis’ encyclical has had a more radical impact in the media. This 180-page letter is addressed to “every single person on the planet” and states that global warming is one of the world’s most pressing moral, ethical and religious challenges. Well, looking at the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, it is pleasing to read that the academy has many respected scientists,  among them famous physicists like Claude Cohen-Tannoudji , Theodor W. Hänsch, Stephen Hawking, Klaus von Klitzing, or Carlo Rubbia to name a few. The work of the Academy covers fundamental science, the science and technology of global issues, science adressing the problems of the Third World, ethics and politics of science, bioethics and epistemology.

A positive development, after the turmoil generated in 2014 by the suppression of the chief scientific advisor position at the EU Commission, was the proposal soon after by president Jean-Claude Juncker to set up a European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), a revamped version of the former Bureau of European Policy Advisers. This Centre would focus on economic and social issues, sustainable development, institutional policy, and communications, with a particular emphasis on foresight studies. In May a press release announced that a group of eminent scientists, among them Serge Haroche, Nobel laureate in physics 2012, was invited for a working-lunch together with the Vice-President Jyrki Katainen and Carlos Moedas, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation. The purpose of the meeting was ‘to exchange views on how to ensure that Europe remains a center of excellence for science, foster innovative ideas that are brought to market, and ensure that EU policy benefits from the best scientific advice’. Thus the idea of a science advisory panel at the European level is back on track and the EPS aims to become an active partner.

I am thus convinced that submitting or responding with objective scientific advice, based on careful studies should also be one of the duties of all learned societies and by this activity demonstrate that scientists are concerned by the great challenges of today. But the communication needs on both sides attentive, competent, and engaged interlocutors. As mentioned by the editor of Physics World, Matin Durrani in a view expressed on political questions in May 2015 (vol. 28/5), we also need more scientific literacy among politicians. The complaint that scientifically trained politicians are lacking goes hand in hand with the wishful thinking that if more scientists go into politics, the world would be a better place. The opinion of Angela Merkel, German chancellor and physicist would be of great value in the middle of the Greek crisis! But let’s be realistic, when politicians get into power, they are confronted with many competing requests and cannot focus on science only.

Another phenomenon to consider is unfortunately scientific misconduct by a few who might discredit the work of the majority of scientists in front of the public opinion. According to Wikipedia, ‘scientific misconduct is the violation of the standard codes of scholarly conduct and ethical behavior in professional scientific research’. It includes negligence in the research process with fabrication, falsification or simply embellishment of data, plagiarism in addition to false credit. All of this is essentially due to career pressure – after the moto publish or perish -, and to the ease in cheating with today’s informatics tools.

It is therefore essential that advising on science is done by setting a good example and following a code of ethics. The many science advisory boards formed worldwide in a network of peers should consider all these aspects when addressing relevant questions in research and technology and interacting with policymakers, media and the public in general.

Christophe Rossel
EPS President

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