Page last updated at 02:30 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

EU needs 'brutal' science advice

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Chief Scientist John Beddington
John Beddington: leading a wake-up call for European Science Advice

European commissioners and MEPs need better, more "brutal" scientific advice, the UK government's chief scientist has said.

Professor John Beddington said that Europe should follow the US president's lead and step up its scientific agenda.

"Compared with the new Washington line-up, European science advice looks very deficient," he said.

Professor Beddington is leading efforts to update Europe's system and is calling for more independent advisers.

US President Barack Obama has appointed a "dream team" of scientists to senior positions in his administration to advise him on policy.

John Holdren, an expert on climate change, will be his personal science adviser. Working with him will be a plethora of world-renowned scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners.

"This should serve as a wake-up call to the European Union," says Professor Beddington.

We need scientists to come in and challenge policy at lots of levels
Professor John Beddington
The UK has a network of scientific advisors in 17 government departments.

Their job is to be an independent - and sometimes irritating voice - for ministers, scrutinising policy and, if they feel it is unworkable, saying so.

In Europe, the body that provides scientific support to the commission is the Joint Research Centre, which Professor Beddington describes as "excellent".

But it was unable to provide the proactive and sometimes "brutal" scientific advice that policy makers might not want to hear, he told BBC News.

The 'challenge'

Environmental regulations in particular, he says, are often well meant, but if they are not independently assessed, they can be misguided.

As examples, Professor Beddington cited plans to phase out pesticides that pose little risk to human health, and European efforts to forge ahead with growing biofuel crops, which have been linked to increased food prices.

"In the major directorates you don't have scientific advisors and there is no overall advisor on policy [reporting to] the commission president," he says.

"We need scientists to come in and challenge policy at lots of levels.

"It doesn't mean that policy will always be wrong. But it does mean that the mechanism of scientific challenge isn't present in the commission at the moment."

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