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Focus on quality and transparency at the first European seminar on science-based policy advice in the field of agriculture and environment

There are major differences in status and organization of science-based policy advice among the European member states. However, the challenges are often the same, and cooperation among providers of science-based policy advice could increase quality. That was one of the take home messages from the first European seminar on science-based policy advice in the field of agriculture and environment.

2021.04.12 | Claus Bo Andreasen

Photo: Lars Kruuse - AU Foto

When the corona infection spread in the spring of 2020, many Europeans became acquainted with the concept of science-based government service. For rolling cameras, TV viewers could experience authorities presenting research-based calculations, models and statements, which formed the basis for critical decisions on how to deal with the corona crisis.

However, it is not only in the field of health that the demand for scientific advice exists.

Rising demand for scientific advice

- Everywhere in Europe, there is a growing demand for science-based advice in the field of agriculture and the environment, says director Niels Halberg from DCA - National Center for Food and Agriculture at Aarhus University. Moreover, there is an increasing international focus on the principles and processes on which the science-based policy advice is based.

Many governments in Europe have adopted ambitious targets in the field of agriculture and food production, for example on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the environment and biodiversity. At the same time, an efficient and competitive agricultural and food sector is important for food supply and economy.

Decisions can be both complicated and conflicting, and it helps to make questions about agriculture, food, climate and the environment hot topics on the political agenda. In several member states, science-based advice has become the subject of heated debates. This entails the need for researchers - and their institutions - to follow clear and rigorous principles to ensure independence and arm's length, high scientific quality and transparency.

At Aarhus University's Faculty of Technical Sciences (AU TECH), there is a long tradition of providing science-based policy advice to e.g. the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries and to the Ministry of Environment. The service is coordinated by DCA and DCE, which are the first in Europe to follow an ISO 9001 certified quality management system.

Against this background, DCA and DCE took the initiative to organize the first European seminar focusing on science-based government advice in agriculture, food, climate and the environment. More than 200 researchers and advisers from all over Europe participated in the seminar (webinar), which was held on 16-17 March 2021.

The concept of “science-based policy advice” includes most often the combination of science advice itself and the research-base on which the advice is based. The tasks can e.g. include preparation of reports, evaluations, monitoring, data collection and mapping, professional assessments, etc.

Challenges for food supply, climate and environment

Initially, it is important to state that there are huge challenges in the field of agriculture and the environment. Patrick Flammarion, who is the Deputy Director General in charge of Expertise and Public Policy Support at INRAE, France, made this clear in his contribution, where he, among other things, pointed out challenges related to climate change, environment, resource utilization, and biodiversity linked to food production.

These challenges require fundamental changes in both agriculture, food production, resource management and even the lifestyle of the individual citizen. In these areas, it is important that there is synergy between research and policy advice. That is why INRAE has set up a new directorate for scientific expertise and policy support, headed by Patrick Flammarion, to identify future challenges thanks to collective scientific expertise, foresight and advanced simulation studies, to help designing new public policies, and to provide support for the implementation of public policies.

According to Patrick Flammarion, the research community has a major role to play in identifying and describing the challenges. He pointed out that individual researchers might be obliged to take on the role of experts and advisers. At the same time, they must also help to inform and enlighten the public, they may form innovative partnerships with "policy actors" and they must use their knowledge of the societal challenges to identify further research and innovation priorities.

Systemic cooperation is needed

In order to deal with the huge number of unsolved questions and challenges in the field of agriculture and environment, transnational collaboration between scientific institutions specialized in research and policy advice is needed. In his contribution, research Director Stefan Lange from Thünen Institute – Federal Research Institute for Rural Areas, Forestry and Fisheries in Germany pointed out that many of the challenges are similar across EU member states and not only of national interest.

On this background, Stefan Lange called for joint systematic science-policy interfaces developing science-based, policy-driven joint strategies and implementation plans, and he argued for more, closer and structured cooperation between research institutes across the EU.

Advice in controversial areas

A large part of the agricultural and environmental research deals with controversial topics where different groups of stakeholders might disagree on goals and means. Important examples are issues concerning the impact of agriculture on environment, climate and biodiversity. Scientific advice in these areas can have major consequences for both specific producers and for society as a whole.

In his contribution, Professor and Research Director Frank O’Mara from the Irish Food and Agricultural Research Institute Teagasc specifically addressed the issue of scientific advice in controversial areas. He suggested that researchers should focus on delivering research-based analyses as a background for the political processes rather than specific advice regarding political decisions; the point is that researchers must be independent and not get involved in the political decision-making process itself.

The research on which the advice is based should, as far as possible, be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. At the same time, research and advice should be made easily accessible for both stakeholders and the public; not just for the authorities. Frank O’Mara’s recommendation is that researchers set aside time to meet with stakeholders and present their research to them.

Integrity and independence

When scientific advice potentially may result in policies, which affect the living conditions of many people, it must be a requirement that the advice is objective and independent. This again requires that the processes surrounding the creation of the science advice is transparent and that it is possible to verify the scientific basis. Such principles are formulated in different ways and with different emphasis across the EU member states. This finding appears from an overview presented at the seminar by Professor David Budtz Pedersen, from Aalborg University in Copenhagen.

Part of the seminar focused on principles and procedures. In her speech Lieve Herman, Chair of the ILVO Scientific Integrity Committee in Flanders, presented proposals for guidelines to ensure the integrity and independence of the advice provided by ILVO. Petra Engel from CREA in Italy reviewed the institution's principles for building competence, diversity, independence and transparency. Finally, Hanne Bach from Aarhus University reviewed the quality assurance system on which AU TECH's consultancy is based.

Internal challenges in the university environment

However, principles and procedures are not always sufficient prerequisites for high quality and relevance of the advice. In his presentation, Bram de Vos, who heads the environmental science group at the Dutch University of Wageningen, pointed out some of the internal challenges that universities have to deal with in connection with government services.

Many research environments are “mono-disciplinary”, while the problems that the consultancy has to address go across disciplines. In many cases, putting a mono-disciplinary advice in the right context may require high professional expertise; and a ministry does not necessarily have such expertise. Therefore, the research communities have a responsibility to ensure this interdisciplinary quality of advice.

Bram de Vos also pointed out that universities have an obligation to make their knowledge available to society, and many researchers are passionate about making their knowledge available. However, it is not always the case that the task of providing science-based policy advice is highly regarded. Some researchers have an ideal of "academic freedom", and may have difficulty reconciling themselves with the idea of ​​delivering "commissioned research", where the topic is given as part of the assignment.

On the other hand, it can be a problem if a researcher works exclusively with policy advice. Chief researcher Pasi Rikkonen from the Natural Resources Institute in Finland (LUKE) pointed out the risk of losing the incentive to participate in cutting edge research and building new skills, if you are a scientist working exclusively with today’s policy questions and problems related to them.

The needs of the recipients

At the seminar, there were also discussions about the issues and challenges experienced by the recipients of the science-based advice. Representatives from ministries in Belgium, Denmark and Finland all explained the need that the ministries have for research-based advice. Generally, they expressed great satisfaction and respect for the professional level and the processes behind the advice provided. However, they also pointed to challenges in ensuring consistency in the advice, avoiding conflicts of interest and the prober organization of the advice, including within the ministries themselves.

- Exciting thoughts were presented from the presenters on, for example, how to rethink the involvement of research-based advice in strategic policy development, explains Vice Dean Kurt Nielsen, AU Tech, who led the debate with the recipients. - At the same time, it is important to maintain the principles of arm length and openness, he says.

Big difference in the organization of consulting in Europe

And there are major differences in the organization of research-based advice in different countries. This was shown in a presentation from Professor David Budtz Pedersen.

In connection with his research in science advice, David Budtz Pedersen is mapping the area. Among other things, the mapping shows that in some countries researchers employed in ministerial sector research institutions are responsible for the advice. Elsewhere, national academies, research councils, think tanks or universities are responsible for various types of government advice.

The differences have i.a. prompted the OECD to point out that there is a need to develop general principles for research-based government services.

Need for cooperation

The difference emphasizes the need for cooperation and discussion of principles, procedures and "best practices". In his concluding speech, Niels Halberg therefore pointed to the possibility of establishing a network for researchers and advisers who work with research-based advice within the relevant parts of TECH’s research areas.

Against this background, a study is currently being conducted to map the interest and need for such a network.

Additional information

The seminar on research-based government services was held by Aarhus University (DCA and DCE) in collaboration with the European Organization for Research-Based Government Consulting (ESAF) and with support from EC’s Science Advice Mechanism (SAM) under DG Research & Innovation.

The seminar had participants from all over Europe. 325 participants had signed up for the seminar, but not all participated.

The seminar program and the presentations can be found here

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