Dominique Ristori discusses the role of science in securing Europe's economic recovery

20 October 2012


Reported by Henry Rex, CSaP Policy & Communications Officer.

The application of science to policy making is potentially almost limitless...

So said Dominique Ristori, Director General of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, as he gave his lecture to a packed house at Churchill College on the 18th October.

The ever more complex challenges facing Europe have made the demand for evidence-based EU policies even greater. EU policymakers need more and more scientific support and advice for policy development and impact assessment. As the European Commission's in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre's (JRC) mission is to provide EU policies with independent, evidence-based scientific and technical support and advice throughout the whole policy cycle.

The JRC is the European Commission's only Directorate-General (DG) that carries out scientific research in its own laboratories. The primary purpose of this research is to support the policy development of the policy DGs of the Commission, and to ensure the excellence of its support and advice to policy, the JRC works closely with the scientific community in the EU and internationally, including in academia, national government and industry.

The JRC focuses on a limited number of key priorities: financial stability and economic growth; environment and climate change; energy and transport; agriculture and food security; health and consumer protection; information society and digital agenda; and all aspects of safety and security, including those related to nuclear energy - all supported through a cross-cutting and multidisciplinary approach. And with the changing nature of politics and policy making the role of the JRC and evidence-based policy has become increasingly prominent.

Today’s politicians and policy makers are more aware of the economic and political cost of policy failures. They need to know what works, and how to avoid unintended consequences.”“

In his lecture Mr Ristori set out his ideas on the key challenges and opportunities for better integrating science and policy as seen from the EU perspective, drawing on recent new orientations in the JRC. He highlighted the need to boost growth and innovation in the face of the current economic storm as one of the principal challenges faced by the JRC, saying “Today the current economic, financial and social crisis is undoubtedly the main political priority” and he was very clear about the best way to get Europe on the path to economic recovery: “The most promising solution is to invest more in science, research and innovation.

Dominique spoke well about the increasing demand for science not only for boosting growth but for policy areas right across the board. He emphasised the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach as adopted by the JRC, and how such an approach helps to break down silos between key actors and produces fruitful collaborations.

And yet despite the increased demand for science in policy, he stressed that there is still much to be done in terms of the relationship between scientific research and policy. He praised the steps that the UK Government has taken so far to try and bridge the gap, drawing particular attention to Whitehall’s Chief Scientific Advisers, one of the most sophisticated systems in place. However, referring to his fellow CSaP Distinguished Lecturer Mark Henderson, he noted that Henderson’s book The Geek Manifesto demonstrates that even here in the UK science based policy making could be considerably improved. The timing of the policy cycle, which tends to move independently of the research cycle, the availability of research at the right moment in the policy process, and the need of politicians to understand the limits and uncertainties of scientific advice are just three of the issues that need to be addressed in order to have a sufficiently effective integration of science into policy making.

In light of these challenges he paid tribute to current initiatives working to solve these problems, such as the JRC’s new Science Advice to Policy Unit, headed up by CSaP Policy Fellow David Mair, and making special mention of his hosts for the evening, concluding with: “I warmly applaud the efforts of the Centre for Science and Policy to bring scientists and policy makers together, and I will encourage my colleagues to apply to your Policy Fellowship.

Upon the conclusion of the lecture there were a number of insightful questions from the audience about the nature of the research carried out by the JRC, its benefits and drawbacks. One question that really stuck in the mind concerned the role that science had to play in policy: the extent to which policy should be defined by evidence-based research and what consideration should be given to democracy and the will of the people. Dominique welcomed the question and stressed the importance of identifying where and when science should be factored into the policy making process, concluding that “science should never dictate policy, but provide the basis for informed rational consideration of the options.

Dominique's lecture can be viewed here:

Dominique Ristori

European Commission