The EU’s new Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) panel will deliver its first official advice to the European Commission – on how to close the gap between vehicle CO2 emission levels in the real world and those detected under test conditions – within six months, according to Dr Henrik C. Wegener, Chief Academic Officer at the Technical University of Denmark, and chair of the SAM High Level Group.
After your first meeting of the panel on 29 January you’ve been tasked with providing advice on two topics: CO2 emissions from vehicles and cybersecurity. Was the public interest in the Volkswagen emissions scandal a factor in choosing this topic?
‘(There was) certainly a strong desire from the (European) Commission to have work carried out in this area at this time but we should keep in mind that the topic SAM is studying is very different to the Volkswagen scandal which was related to air pollutant emissions. Our topic is focussing on CO2, which is a very different issue. In the evaluation of what topics to take on board, we also look at what is the timing relative to the need to develop and implement specific policies, so that our advice comes at the right time.
‘But we are obviously also developing our practices and procedures as we engage in the first topics. That’s part of the reason we chose two topics that are quite different in nature and also different in how broad they are and what scientific disciplines should be considered when answering the questions.’
What kind of questions are you looking at in CO2 emissions from vehicles?
‘The questions relate to improving the measurements of CO2 emissions so they more closely resemble real-world emissions than what is currently the situation. That analysis includes also looking at which approaches can be used, are there any science arguments that need to be considered, and basically also in what kind of framework (or) system this could be done to ensure the best possible transparency and general reliability.’
What’s the timeframe for your advice?
‘We have not committed to a specific date but we have a mutual understanding that we would like to arrive at a conclusion on the CO2 emissions issue within half a year. For cybersecurity, it will take a little longer.’
What are you looking at with cybersecurity?
‘One of the issues that is of particular interest and expressed in the scoping paper is single digital identities management in Europe. How do we create the single digital market and how can we make sure that cybersecurity issues do not get in the way or jeopardise the ambition to develop that? Another prominent question is the issue of encryption – on one side to ensure that our personal and private data are encrypted, but on the other side how do we ensure that those who need to be able to follow communication or traffic of data to protect our societies also have these opportunities? So the back door question.’
How did you come up with the topics?
'It was an iterative process based on a large pool of potential ideas that had been indicated by different Commissioners as being potential areas of SAM engagement. I believe that those Commissioners indicated to Commissioner Moedas which topics were the most appropriate to be investigated by SAM, based on a combination of their relevance to the policy priorities of the Juncker Commission and the timeliness of the advice that would be provided. According to the rules setting up the High Level Group, we can also bring topics to the attention of the Commission that we think will be important for future policy development, and we are continuing to reflect on potential topics.
How will SAM work?
‘We would like to arrive at a conclusion on the CO2 emissions issue within half a year.’
Dr Henrik C. Wegener, chair of the SAM High Level Group
‘We are not going to do any research of our own. The starting point is all the evidence that is out there. We have to create mechanisms so that it is somehow collected, collated and put into the policy context in which it should benefit EU regulation, to provide better scientific evidence for improved regulation.
‘As you know we have had our first meeting, we have taken on the topics. In the next meeting (we continued) conversations on how we are going to go about delivering the science-based advice. So far we’ve met with the Joint Research Centre (the EU’s in-house science body) and discussed with them both topics. But we should involve all relevant science providers, experts, and the academies. We are structuring that at the moment, but we haven’t found the final formula for it.’
How can SAM play a role in encouraging evidence-based policymaking?
‘Clearly the establishment of SAM represents a very formal and tangible commitment on the side of the (European) Commission to ensure access to scientific advice for policymaking. And now we have to develop a system that delivers exactly that. The SAM High Level Group consists of experienced scientists from a reasonably wide range of scientific disciplines so we represent a multidisciplinary scientific view on the questions. We should and we will establish links to the broader European and global scientific community to solicit scientific input which we then interpret and convey back to the Commission (and) the Commissioner.’
How will you know if you’re doing a good job?
'If our input improves policymaking so that it is based on the best available scientific evidence and thereby we get better policies or regulations, that of course is one important endpoint. Another thing which I think is interesting is if the establishment of SAM can somehow facilitate a structuring of the landscape of the academies so that they play a more active part in providing scientific advice, scientific input to policymaking both at an EU level but also, in many Member States, at the national level. This is done very differently in the different Member States and I think when I look at the way it works in the US and also maybe in other areas, the European system has a lot more to offer than what I think right now is being utilised.’
What is the benefit of having a team of advisors, rather than a single person?
‘A group clearly has many benefits when you are asked to deliver specific science-based advice on very complex questions. We have already been asked questions about two issues on which none of us is a specialist. Being in a group means that we can have seven minds looking at evidence, identifying the key people to speak to, and seven minds unpicking the complexities of these scientific areas. Of course, there’s the risk that we’ll disagree, but for me that is a crucial check and balance when we’re talking about providing scientific advice for policy making.’
The Scientific Advice Mechanism will be presented to the international community at the second International Network for Government Science Advice conference, which will be held in Brussels, Belgium on 29 and 30 September 2016 and is co-organised by the European Commission.
The conference will explore how to deepen the dialogue between science and policymaking, how to ensure policymakers have access to timely, solution-oriented advice and how to work across international boundaries.
More information can be found at https://ec.europa.eu/research/sam/index.cfm?pg=events.
Live vaccines can give health effects beyond just protecting us from a specific disease and may even help us combat other infections such as Covid-19, according to Christine Stabell Benn, a professor in global health at the University of Southern Denmark.
They might be beautiful at times, but clouds are still one of the biggest sources of uncertainty in understanding how the climate will change due to global warming, explains Professor Pier Siebesma, an atmospheric physicist at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands.
Henk-Jan Guchelaar knows all too well the serious problems that the side-effects of medication can cause. As a professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, he has spent the last two decades trying to get the link between medicine and our genes recognised more widely.
Using light as an energy source, photosynthetic microalgae can be used to produce products like biofuels and cosmetics. But algae grown in a reactor block out the light on which they feed. New reactor designs could solve this problem and help the industry move forward.
Different people respond to medication in different ways – and the results can be fatal.
Prof. Christine Stabell Benn is studying the wider effects of common vaccines.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.