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9-Misc: "Politics, not science, is the way to the inner ear of the EC"

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TITLE:  Reaching the inner ear of the EC
        How scientists lobby for their interests at the European Commission
SOURCE: EMBO Reports Vol. 2(11), pp 974-977, by Andrew Moore
DATE:   November 2001

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Reaching the inner ear of the EC
How scientists lobby for their interests at the European Commission

In 1999, one US university alone spent US$ 760 000 on lobbying politicians 
for funding to improve its science facilities. Boston University was 
criticised when it contracted a professional lobbying agency, Cassidy & 
Associates, to do the ‘dirty’ work. And that is how it would be considered 
in the medieval world of European science politics. Welcome to the arcane, 
unintuitive and dimly lit labyrinth of the European Commission (EC). While 
some wander the narrow passageways with no more than a tallow torch to 
light their way, eventually joining the dusty skeletons, others seem to be 
friends with its keepers, and know the passwords to the secret rooms.

Many scientists lament their lack of influence in the EC, and spend years 
knocking on closed doors; others have rapid success. Two factors appear to 
play a critical role: how big you are, and who your friends are. Size is 
important; a scientific organisation that represents a large number of 
members is more attractive to the EC than an individual voice. But to be 
effective it must speak with a single voice. Furthermore, basic researchers 
must become immersed in the economic and social implications of their 
research, and, most importantly, follow the tracks laid out by the EC. This 
is one side to the Commission. The other is a culture shrouded in mystery, 
and completely impenetrable to all but the initiated; a world that works on 
long established, trusted contacts, and a code of respect and honour. It 
has even been likened to the honour-bound way of the Samurai.

But let us start with size. Where academic organisations have fallen far 
behind in the race to the EC’s ears, relative newcomers, such as industry 
platforms and umbrella organisations, have overtaken them. Prominent among 
these are the Animal Cell Technology Industrial Platform (ACTIP) and the 
European Federation for Pharmaceutical Sciences (EUFEPS). As Hans van den 
Berg from Akzo Nobel, and Chairman of ACTIP, explained, two channels work 
particularly well in influencing the policy makers. One is including EC 
representatives in plenary meetings, at which they are invited to present a 
status update on the Framework Programme (FP). This provides an opportunity 
to ‘feed people with our opinions’, as van den Berg put it. The other is 
writing letters and position papers, which is very effective provided one 
knows one’s correspondent personally and maintains a dialogue with 
meetings, visits to Brussels, position papers and a continuous information 
flow in bite-sized chunks. The support of the European Parliament (EP) can 
also help, because its members are open to receive information on certain 
topics. However, these contacts in the EP must be cultured, and as van den 
Berg noted, this is not a professional lobbying approach as seen in 
Washington. Nevertheless, ACTIP has provided important input to the EC on 
the drafting of FPs 4 and 5, and has written several position papers in the 
run-up to FP 6, emphasising the importance of basic research.

It is no accident that industry platforms are listened to by the EC. They 
span the twilight zone that no one really understands - but takes for 
granted - between a spark of genius in a scientist’s mind, and a 
development of socio-economic importance. EUFEPS recently hit the jackpot 
with its position paper ‘New Safe Medicines Faster’, published and 
submitted to the EC in August 1999. Its title is mirrored almost word for 
word in the draft of FP 6, which reads ‘Research will focus on rapid 
development of safer more effective drugs’. As Ole Bjerrum, Vice President 
of EUFEPS, and Research Counsellor at Novo Nordisk, Denmark, pointed out, 
‘We wanted to collect bottom-up information that could be useful in the 
drafting of the 6th Framework Programme’. But what the EUFEPS experience 
really shows is that if scientists want to sell their advice to the EC 
directly, they will have to use the right words, and according to Bjerrum, 
give something in return, i.e. ‘part of their working capacity; their 

Those who have had success have clearly promoted the ‘right’ topic, caught 
the right person at the right time, and were too big to be ignored. 
Contrast the success of EUFEPS with a smaller academic player such as the 
European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO), which has found it harder to 
find fertile ground for its suggestions. Having co-organised three EC-
sponsored meetings in France in 2000 and 2001, EPSO failed to see a single 
reference to plant sciences in the most recent draft of FP 6 - despite its 
inclusion in previous drafts. This seemingly glaring omission - accompanied 
by the omission of animal and microbial genomics - was likely due to 
political unwillingness by the EC to support research on GMOs during public 
health scares. EPSO followed the FP 6 proposal with a response sent to the 
EC, EP and Council of Ministers, and plant genomics has duly been raised as 
an amendment. Comprehensiveness pays dividends.

The European Life Sciences Forum (ELSF) offers a platform to all life 
scientists to advise the EC in a united fashion. Its manager, Luc van Dyck, 
however, is sceptical about the EC’s desire to include more open-ended 
academic research in FP 6. Quoting from the FP 6 proposal in Research 
priorities under Fundamental knowledge and basic tools for functional 
genomics, which reads ‘Research will focus on developing high-throughput 
tools...’ he remarked, ‘I don’t see how they can build networks of 
excellence around these themes’. Van Dyck recognises the merits of the EC: 
‘they are taking the right line in infrastructures, targeting major 
diseases and making opportunities for mobility’, he said. However, if he 
has one message it is that scientists must stop expecting the EC to fund 
long-term basic research: ‘there should be an independent research agency 
in the EC, because it’s obviously not the goal of the EC to fund basic 
research’, he asserted. Indeed, in Title II of the Maastricht Treaty it is 
clear that the major aim of the EC is to improve competitiveness and 
employment. From this, it follows that basic researchers would do better to 
concentrate on their national research councils, and try to dissuade them 
from taking a lead from the EC in funding distribution.

The elliptical orbit of the EC has taken its science policy from one end of 
the spectrum to the other; having concentrated on basic research up until 
FP 4, it then started a relentless assault on technologies, hence the 
emphasis on application-driven research in FPs 4 and 5. The path of the EC 
does not appear to be converging with planet basic research in FP 6, but we 
will have to wait for the final version - conjunctions with politics and 
public pressure will influence its horoscope in the meantime.

The political tool of influence presently offered by the EC is the 
‘stakeholder meeting’. The first of the stakeholder meetings, ‘Genetics and 
the future of Europe’, took place in November 2000 in Brussels (Moore and 
Breithaupt, EMBO reports, 2000). It was planned by some of the most 
respected names in molecular biology, the Life Sciences High Level Group 
(HLG) of Commissioner Philippe Busquin. Prompted by the growing public 
resistance to biotechnology, Busquin assembled the HLG specifically to 
improve the way in which the EC interacts with its stakeholders.

The EC is quite open about the brief of the HLG. As Kurt Vandenberghe, a 
Member of the Cabinet of Philippe Busquin, put it, ‘The high level group 
was formed because Mr Busquin thought there was too little attention from 
scientists to dialogue with the public; it is not a scientific committee’. 
Its mandate was to advise him on emerging topics and how scientists should 
communicate with the public. However, he continued, ‘What they tell the 
commissioner will trickle down in the FP and influence policy’. The EC 
under Busquin should certainly be credited with initiatives to involve 
consumers in the scientific debate. ‘The Commissioner engages a lot in 
dialogue; he is personally very committed to talking with stakeholders’, 
noted Vandenberghe. The stakeholder meetings do, indeed, offer scientists 
the opportunity to communicate the importance of their often esoteric 
research to the public that ultimately funds it, and that is no small 

However, to its members it is clear that the HLG is not a means for 
influencing scientific policy. One of these, all of whom were appointed by 
invitation, is Victor de Lorenzo, from the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología 
in Madrid. He discovered the extent of his influence with a paper he 
submitted to Busquin and his staff, emphasising the importance of microbial 
genetics, among many other suggestions to improve FP 6. The initial 
response was one of great enthusiasm: ‘very timely and interesting 
document...we’ll keep these suggestions in mind’, according to de Lorenzo, 
who concluded ‘nothing has happened since that I am aware of’. He is 
baffled by a decision-making process that is quite impenetrable to 
scientists. Hence one would be naēve to think that the HLG had been asked 
for input to FP 6; it was not. In fact, according to Derek Burke from 
Cambridge, another member, it had no influence on policy at all.

On the other hand, Burke noted that the group had had moderate success in 
changing the traditional style of EC meetings. These hitherto consisted of 
many people talking, and little time for discussion. Finally a paper would 
be produced, which rather reflected the prepared talks than the views of 
the stakeholders. But Burke is doubtful of the efficacy of a group that has 
only convened in its entirety once in five meetings; Busquin chose ‘very 
busy people who are often too busy to come’, he reflected. He senses from 
the diminishing scope for free discussion that control is slowly seeping 
back to Brussels.

Moreover, policy advice will, in future, be solicited from the European 
Research Advisory Board (EURAB), inaugurated this October. Its 45 members, 
half from industry, and only three from the life sciences, will advise the 
EC on horizontal policy issues such as career structures, mobility and the 
evaluation of projects - but not science. For that the EC prefers 
contributions from European agencies and organisations, and the bigger the 
better. A central umbrella organisation, such as the ELSF, ‘would make our 
life easier’ according to Vandenberghe, who added that ‘anything that 
contributes to more European coherence we welcome and encourage’.

The EC may, indeed, listen to large umbrella organisations representing 
applied research, but the brutal truth is that basic researchers must 
mingle with politicians, not shelter under an umbrella. And mingling with 
politicians does not inspire admiration among fellow scientists. So 
discovered Gottfried Schatz on leaving his research institute at the 
Biozentrum at the University of Basel, to take up office as President of 
the Swiss Science and Technology Council. ‘A colleague remarked "Jeff, you 
have become a politician" as if I had developed cancer’, he reflected, 
adding ‘this is shocking and sad’. Schatz is chipping away at the political 
monolith by understanding the intricacies of the political connections and 
contacts both nationally and in the EC. But he takes the daring view that 
politicians who fight for science should be recognised by scientists. When 
the American Society of Cell Biology awards prizes for science, it always 
gives medals to congressmen and politicians for their services to science. 
In Europe, scientists take it for granted that politicians should support 
science. But just as science has to fight for half a column in the news, so 
it will have to fight in the political ring.

Up to the end of the 19th Century, science, business, commerce and trade 
were as one. Lavoisier, for instance, was a scientist, industrial chemist 
and economist. He was dispatched with the words ‘La republique n’a pas 
besoin de savants’. Now the call may be ‘Technology doesn’t need 
scientists’. Turning back the clock to Lavoisier’s time is a little utopian 
- if we dispense with the guillotine - so how can scientists be re-
established in politics? According to de Lorenzo, there is but one 
solution: ‘we have no choice but to organise a professional lobby’. To 
engage with politics, the academic side of science must change. Schatz is 
working on a three-pronged attack on Swiss science funding: reforming the 
creaky academic system, opening dialogue with the public and finally 
pushing for more investment in research. Politics, according to Schatz, is 
all about emotions, and this may be hard for scientists to come to terms 
with: ‘Scientific logic works in the forebrain; political logic works in 
the lymbic system - the primitive drives’, he joked. And politics, not 
science, is the way to the inner ear of the EC.


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