What is the role of scientific innovations in EU policy?

Jan Sindt

The European Union sees scientific innovation as vital for economic growth and competition in global markets. This perspective is so deeply rooted in the self-perception of European political and scientific elites that it is hard to argue with. In times of economic crisis, the European Union has kept this focus, even increasing its financial support to scientific research. In addition, efforts are made to mobilize private capital for research and development.

Scientific communities submitted 400,000 proposals during the first three years of Horizon 2020, The European Union’s flagship research programme. Some 700,000 Europeans are pursuing a PhD or equivalent and European scientists roll out well over 430,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications each year*. Albeit only providing a coarse measure, these figures hint at substantive progress toward making Europe a world-class science performer. The volume of scientific output might support the assumption that a lot of innovative capacity is available to support the European Commission’s policy-making as well. And indeed, policy-making is increasingly making use of - and relying on - cross-disciplinary scientific expertise to tackle the increasing complexity of the problems faced across Europe. Making the water-energy-food nexus sustainable can serve as an example: no single person would claim expertise in all the relevant aspects of that challenge.

No single scientist does either, and at a certain level of complexity, deliberation and the force of the better argument ultimately surrender to the limitations of human brains. When that happens, we have to trust in the expertise and best intentions of the other. Pushing innovation in any area further will sooner or later result in complexity beyond the intellectual capacity of individuals, and they have to build trust within mostly interdisciplinary teams. This would appear obvious, but it is important. It means that innovators cannot claim the benign innocence of rational thinking since a social component, including their motivations, is woven into their scientific outputs. Public debates around innovations respond to that, for example by questioning the motives behind introducing genetically modified organisms into the food chain, rather than discussing the impact on health and biodiversity or uncertain long-term effects. Substituting scientific argument with trust in experts opens the door for all kinds of competing knowledge claims by actors whose motives by far outweigh their expertise in the field of study. This in turn ultimately undermines public trust in science per se.

Innovations in information technologies contribute to the problem by lowering access barriers to broadcast competing knowledge claims, hence removing the traditional noise filters employed by scientific communities (like scientific methods, peer-review and editorial decisions). While the free exchange of ideas greatly benefits from open access web based platforms, the individual has to determine the quality of available information. Combined with the aforementioned substitution of scientific argument by trust in experts, this introduces a new social component to knowledge generation and innovation. In extreme cases, the self-selection of trust-worthy sources of knowledge traps individuals in echo chambers, reinforcing trust in specific knowledge claims, filtering out access to competing knowledge claims, and creating frictions in the socio-political sphere. The public debate over health risks posed by glyphosate could serve as an example, even though it is not a recent innovation**. With a broader non-scientific stakeholder base being able to engage in discussions about innovations and how they are being used, building trust is becoming even more important to avoid misinformed debates potentially leading to poor policy decisions.

How does the European Commission address the social component of innovative science? In addition to helpful measures like improving stakeholder participation and making the many involved interest and lobby groups transparent, the Commission is also increasing the share of private capital and profit-oriented actors in research and innovation. While having companies that benefit from innovative research foot a part of the bill may appear to be in taxpayers best interest, a collusion of private capital incentives and scientific curiosity may not help to build trust with a broader political stakeholder base. If people increasingly ask who proposed an innovation instead of what argument supports its implementation, business interests and their motivations will need to be clearly identifiable. This is important, because scientific solutions to political problems ultimately have to convince the broader public rather than comparably well-informed policy-makers in order to inform democratic decision-making.

* The figure only counts those publications registered by the Science Citation Index of Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science. So-called grey literature, which is scientific assessments not published in dedicated peer-reviewed journals, would drastically inflate this figure.

** Glyphosate was found to potentially cause cancer for humans as well as to be toxic for bees, which triggered a debate about banning the pesticide in Europe. During the public debates, one author of the cancer study was discredited for being paid by US lawyers bringing a related civil case against a main producer of Glyphosate. The European Chemical Agency’s Risk Assessment Body was later also criticized for a conflict of interest of several of its members due to their involvement in chemical business operations. Furthermore the same Body was criticized for using unpublished evidence provided by the industry. On the other side, some farmer interest groups claimed that large parts of Great Britain would be overgrown by weeds and there is no other way to control those, should Glyphosate be banned in the European Union. It turned very difficult to find unbiased scientific assessments in the middle of the debate.