Main authors: Matjaž Glavan, Špela Železnikar, Sindre Langaas, Gerard Velthof, Susanne Wuijts, Sandra Boekhold, Susanne Klages, Claudia Heidecke, Marina Pintar
Editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: Glavan M.J. et al. (2019) Evaluation report on barriers and issues in providing integrated scientific support for EU policy. FAIRWAY Project Deliverable 7.1 25 pp


1.  Agriculture and Water Quality in the EU

Agriculture accounts for almost half of the total EU land area and is a primary source of diffuse pollution of nutrients and pesticides significantly affecting most of the EU river basins [12,13]. Rapid changes in farming systems in the post-war decades allowed an increase in agricultural productivity and caused considerable impacts (physical and chemical) on freshwater resources [1,13–15]. The focus on groundwater mainly concerns its use as drinking water as about 75% of EU inhabitants depend on groundwater for their water supply [16].

The WFD requires that primary directives and other policies tackling point sources and diffuse pollution at the source are first implemented fully (i.e., ND, GWD, DSUP, Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, Industrial Emissions Directive) before complementary policies and additional measures are used [17,18]. Data show that within 63% of the river basin districts reported, implementation of the ND is not enough to tackle diffuse pollution at the level needed to secure WFD objectives [19]. Implementation of the ND in 1991 decreased nutrient surpluses and improved groundwater quality by 16% by 2008 [20]. However, according to communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council, diffuse pollution of nitrate significantly affects 90% of river basin districts, 50% of surface water bodies and 33% of groundwater bodies across the EU [18,19, 21]. The nitrate target of 50 mg/L is still exceeded in areas of shallow and sandy groundwater and intensive agriculture [22]. Despite substantial progress in reducing the consumption of mineral fertilizer, there are other important sources of fertilizers such as manure and other organic sources that must also be reduced.

There are still many gaps in the basic measures that have been put in place by member states to address agricultural pressures, including a lack of measures to control phosphate and nitrate emissions outside nitrate vulnerable zones established under the ND [19] and within and outside of the drinking water protection areas. Additional loopholes are that member states have the opportunity to apply for derogation within ND (e.g., a manure application rate that contains more than 170 kg nitrogen (N) per ha under certain conditions) or in the interpretation of the nitrogen application limit (e.g., adding gaseous losses of nitrogen on top of the general limit) [23]. These gaps leave us with the belief that, due to political reasons, individual member states or regions are avoiding or postponing actions that would lead to solving the water quality problem. On the other hand, while national or EU funding can enhance the role of science and research projects in relation to policy, they rarely contribute to actual capacity building in the legislative sector and have limited influence on problem-solving or key stakeholders. In addition to strong professional organizations inhibiting structural changes in local areas, legislators rarely provide additional money to implement measures from River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) as they rely on money from agricultural funds to tackle pollution from agricultural sources [12,14,16,22].

Supplementary measures reported in agriculture are mainly voluntary, including advice schemes and agri-environmental measures of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), such as farm extensification and organic agriculture. Research and restoration efforts have been developed to recover ecosystem functions and services [19]. Several EU member states have recognized that losses of N from agriculture have been reduced significantly, especially in nitrate vulnerable zones, but further reductions are required to comply with the EU WFD [22, 24–27]. As a further general reduction in nutrients may affect farm economics, a paradigm change is therefore proposed by Danish scientists, who propose severe restrictions on the application of fertilizers on land vulnerable to leaching of nitrates to the aquatic environment and a potential easing of restrictions in other areas [15, 26]. A lesson learned in Denmark is that general policies can be usefully applied to control a widespread excessive application of N, but once this has been achieved, if further reductions are necessary, a switch to higher precision farming with targeted measures is required [26]. Introducing agri-environmental climate measures (AECMs) to policy can be fraught with difficulty in the form of delays and legal proceedings when the legal and regulatory complexity of adopting such measures at the national level to achieve site-specific environmental objectives is underestimated in a top-down political process [1].

On the other hand, there is growing acceptance among farmers of the environmental benefits of such policies. However, scepticism remains around the validity of specific measures, especially if their impacts are not supported by scientific evidence [28]. Science and policy should cooperate in checking the efficiency of AECMs with delivery, impact metrics, and appropriate standards for identifying trajectories associated with diffuse pollution transfer and ensuring that agri-environmental policies are given a fair and thorough evaluation and modified in the next Common Agricultural Policy cycle, 2021–2027 [24].

The EC Staff Working Document on the water–agriculture nexus [12] acknowledges the delicate balance between agriculture and water-related objectives defined in different directives (WFD, ND, DSUP, DWD) or Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) programs. The Working Document ascertains that less progress has been made than expected with respect to water quality improvements, and it shows political correctness when the EC offers to help member states to overcome this problem and support them in their quest to implement efficient measures. The approach focuses on (1) optimizing the effectiveness of the EU water and agriculture policies, (2) reviewing possibilities for supporting investments and (3) supporting knowledge and innovation transfer. Of course, more than just politically correct words are needed. The identification and implementation of efficient measures that are optimal for specific river basin spatial, climate and socioeconomic conditions is closely related to the active role of science in policy making and policies implementation [29].

An essential factor for successful implementation of voluntary agri-environmental measures for water quality improvement are the behavioural issues related to farmers’ willingness to adopt science-based methods under the absence of strict regulatory control or without economically fair compensation. This fact indicates that a comprehensive understanding of the influences and extension tools that support farmers’ management decisions is necessary, which can only be provided by the science and research sector [30].

Farmers’ management decisions involve a compilation of unique factors including attitudes, motivations, socioeconomic circumstances, agricultural production contexts, policies and support, beliefs, pride, desire and goals, and not all of them have a rational or universal argument [31, 32]. Farmers’ long-term commitment to conservation measures is the result of evolution over time in which their values are “constantly modified and negotiated by social interactions” [32]. Farmers are keen to weigh the feasibility, effectiveness, profitability, and advantages of recommended management practices. Policies should remain grounded in subsidy payments, as environmental beliefs motivate only a minority of farmers [32]. However, sufficient support in terms of technical knowledge provided by agricultural extension services in the form of information sharing networks among farmers, participatory group learning, or personal communication is critical, as it increases the likelihood of conservation measures being adopted [30, 31, 33]. To better estimate the level and rate of adoption among farmer populations with a diverse range of practices, an adoption and diffusion outcome prediction tool was developed [34] that is able to define relative advantages of a practice, people’s perceptions, ease and speed of learning about the practice, and potential adopters [34].

The authors above showed that barriers to enhancing the role of science in policy making and implementation already exist at the member state/region level or even at the individual farmer level. The majority of barriers are connected to political decisions or, better, indecisions made in revealing the ambivalent nature of daily politics in serving public needs and when taking into account sectoral socioeconomic conditions [35]. Often, science-based methods require changes in legislative documents that policy is not willing to open and update due to possible public debate and confrontations or because they require allocation of funds from other sectors [35]. This fact narrows our research question as one would ask which level of agricultural policy (EU, national, regional, local or farm level) is the most appropriate for science to enter the process in order to enhance its role and to have an actual impact on agricultural management and the improvement of drinking water quality. The literature shows that the presence of science is required at all levels with a particular emphasis on farmers, as they are the key stakeholders.

2. Evidence-Based Policy Making in the EU

Evidence-based policy is a concept that was developed in the 1970s, which received renewed strength in the late 1990s [36]. These kinds of policies can be described as science-based programs for action that guide decision making in service to the practical achievement of clearly designated outcomes [37]. Evidence-informed decision-making processes, relying on the transparent use of sound evidence and appropriate consultation, are seen as contributing to balanced policies and legitimate governance. However, the processing of expert knowledge is problematic and highly variable across policy making organizations. The potential for a close linkage between “good information” and “good policy making” is routinely undermined by two essential mechanisms—political and organizational—concerning the legitimacy of policy making processes as well as public trust in decision makers [36]. This fact leads to four approaches that describe the role of science in relation to policy: (1) knowledge shaping policy, (2) politics shaping knowledge, (3) co-production, and (4) autonomous spheres [38].

The Lisbon Strategy, adopted by the EU member states in 2000, moved the role of science into a central position for the development of a European knowledge-based economy and society and increased the involvement of scientists in science policy making (co-production) [39]. After that, European science organizations and eminent scientists initiated a common movement that led to the creation of the European Research Council (ERC) to support basic research of the highest quality. The ERC is supported by different financial instruments such as the European Union's Research and Innovation funding program (e.g., Horizon 2020).

In 2007, the European Commission identified the connectivity of the research area with research policy and society in Europe as an important EU challenge [40]. In 2008, the EC Directorate General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) issued a report with specific recommendations: (1) DG RTD has a pivotal role to play in ensuring that project results are disseminated across the European Commission and should ensure that supported project groups fully understand the importance of producing communication material that is useful, accessible and meaningful to policy makers; and, (2) project coordinators should be encouraged to put the usefulness of their scientific research findings in regards to policy at the forefront of their objectives and actively include partners from the world of policy making (EC) to ensure that the scope of the research responds to defined policy making priority areas [4].

After decades of intensive discussion on this topic, it was demonstrated that decision makers’ behaviour in the processing of information varies across policy areas. Differences in vocabulary, a lack of understanding of the counterpart's mode of operation, and a lack of interaction between decision makers and researchers may result in information that does not meet the needs of society (forming “relevance gaps”) and is thus less useful, although scientifically valid and reliable [7,36,41–43]. Slow responses in funding or disinterest among policy makers in implementing new scientific developments in practice may paralyze scientific endeavours and slow down water quality improvements [44]. The practice of bringing research findings into the policy and practice arenas by publishing in peer-reviewed journals is deeply embedded within the system of science and its incentive structures.

Though often relevant for practitioners, professional scientific findings are rarely presented in a language or form that can be easily used and applied by decision makers, who primarily use governmental and internal institutional information sources [7,35,45], or by farmers, who rely on governmental institutions, extension services or the media. In the media, especially social media, scepticism is often present in regards to scientific results. They are presented as conspiracy theories regardless of whether they confirm or reject common public beliefs initiated by politics, which subsequently has an influence on groups and individuals. Policy makers need to be open-minded, have a broad view of the world and society, and take scientific results seriously, as they canvas are the ones with the tools to design solutions for economic, environmental, social and cultural problems [45, 46]. A study by Radin [35] showed that scientists often have to defend their work as their methodologies or results are misinterpreted by policy makers, politicians or influencing groups. To avoid an ambivalent attitude by society, scientists argue that their work needs professional control and deserves deference [35]. The above studies show the complexity of science’s role in the process of policy making and its actual implementation, which can work only if all parties involved in the process are willing to work together [46] and take advantage of knowledge sharing through the exchange of new knowledge and skills [47].

The European Union made a substantial investment in research and innovation in the past decades through its Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development, including the current program, Horizon 2020 (2014–2020), and its subsequent program, Horizon Europe (2021–2027), in order to respond to and provide substantial scientific evidence for the numerous policies at the union level [48]. At the same time, EC DGs opened calls for tenders (service contracts) with a particular focus on underpinning policy implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. Service contracts are (a) relevant, as they address policy makers’ key questions (very specific); (b) credible, as they are scientifically sound and authoritative (at least good enough); (c) legitimate, as they are developed through processes that can be trusted (competent consortium); and (d) timely, as they deliver reports on time to inform the decision-making process (timeliness is a key advantage compared to research and innovation action (RIA) projects). Improvements are observed as exploitation and dissemination activities are under contractual grant agreement obligation for researchers participating in EU projects and are evident in service contracts [48].

Science–policy dialogues in EU projects or service contracts have many forms [9,48,49]: (1) Policy makers are invited to meetings (e.g., EIP focus groups); (2) conferences or events are organized by projects or the EC; (3) project participants are members of EU or national scientific advisory committees; (4) ministries or other national regulatory bodies or policy makers are directly involved as beneficiaries in projects; (5) projects seek input from regulatory stakeholders through surveys and inform them regularly through policy briefs; (6) representatives from policy making bodies participate in (scientific) advisory boards of projects; (7) projects involve professional scientific societies, stakeholder associations or civil society organizations; (8) the EC assists projects to ensure and facilitate the uptake of scientific results into policies by providing responses to members of the European Parliament, who often enquire about outcomes of projects; and (9) open access publications and data are available so that stakeholders, including policy makers, can get the maximum benefit from EU-funded projects and scientific research.

The organizational structure of scientific support of the EC consists of several levels. The highest is the Directorate General (DG), of which there are 31 in operation. The DGs are closely connected with the Joint Research Centre and its ten science work areas. Aimed at bringing together all relevant actors at the EU, national and regional levels, the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) works with five challenge-driven partnerships formed under the EU Horizon 2020 Innovation. The partnerships are supported by steering groups that create different task forces and work platforms. For our study, the most critical DGs are Agriculture, Environment, and Research and Innovation. The importance of the commission’s DGs in regard to the redistribution of money to specific scientific fields is shown in the numerous interest groups (nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private and public companies, multinational corporations), including the other EU bodies and the member-state governments, that are all lobbying the commission for their desired outcomes [50].

Since the establishment of the EC, there have been 180 European research projects with the word “water” in the name and 75 with the term “agri” under different funding systems (Framework funding, Horizon 2020, European Research Centre, etc.) [51]. Moreover, intergovernmental joint programming initiatives are formed to tackle major societal challenges unable to be addressed by individual countries. These are contributions to the development of the European Research Area. In 2010, the joint programming initiative (JPI) “Water challenges for a changing world” was formed. It is tackling the challenge of achieving sustainable water systems for a sustainable economy in Europe and abroad [52]. Knowledge and innovation communities bring together higher education, research, business, and entrepreneurship in order to produce practical innovations and innovation models that can inspire others to follow. They are created by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), founded in 2008 [52].

In order to protect the quality of drinking water, the European Union, along with its scientific support services, has developed and published an extensive set of directives, policies, guidelines, research projects, websites, and literature. The EC is monitoring the implementation of EU legislation in the member states through reporting and monitoring. Based on their internal monitoring, the member states submit information and data to the EC. After these national reports are analyzed, the findings are presented in various ways (implementation reports, indicators and scoreboards, other publications). The European Commission often works in collaboration with Eurostat, the Joint Research Centre or other agencies, depending on the legislation concerned. Environmental monitoring usually leads to data collection and reporting (Figure 1).

D7.1 fig01
Figure 1

One would think that science has many opportunities to enhance its role in transferring scientific results to the policy making and policy implementation process, with the goal of reducing the agricultural impact on drinking water quality. However, a report of the European Parliament (EP) and the European University Institute on evidence and analysis in EU policy making concluded that institutional systems have an inbuilt tendency to resist change [8, 35, 45]. One of the key problems of evidence-based policy making is bureaucratic inertia, which limits the potential to accept new developments and ideas [8, 54]. Public administrators leading the policy making process can also influence outcomes by choosing among different theories or methods and by their attention to marginal or incremental facts and values [54, 55]. Therefore, the enlightened determination of which facts are important and should be directed to the attention of analysts is required in order for policy makers to make relevant choices that broaden the range of policy options [56]. Studies show that government decision makers tend to use science and research project results somewhat more indirectly, as a source of ideas, information, and orientation [54, 56]. Science has a chance to enhance its role and turn the odds of influencing the policy process in their favour by employing three overarching strategies consistently over time: developing in-depth knowledge, building networks, and engaging in active participation for an extended period [57].

The literature gives many examples of how water resource management is inherently political. It defends the dominant stance of water professionals in that “politics” should be removed, as politics compromises the accountability, transparency, and legitimacy of decisions made [35, 58–60]. However, WFD brought new challenges to politics at jurisdictional scales of operation in the form of hydrological scales prescribed for water management planning. It was observed that relevant stakeholders are increasingly working across scales to advance their interests in different ways; they are redefining and reconstituting the function and significance of scales and creating new scalar hybrids at the interface between hydrological and jurisdictional domains [61]. The extent to which specific measures can be implemented (uptake, blockade) is dependent on complex politics and powerful coalitions across multilevel governance systems and scales of interest (NGOs, businesses, corporations) with an emphasis on higher governance levels [62]. The politics that mediate the use of environmental science assessments as the basis of resource management policy have an opportunity to identify the subjective ways in which scientific assessments could be interpreted so that they can be used by state water resource agencies to underpin water allocation decisions that follow their interests [59].

Scientists, as experts for certain measures, may take a role in supporting or blocking coalitions, but their evaluations of water system sustainability and security are likely to be met with competing claims based on different values and expertise [62]. The importance of the public’s or voters’ opinions of politicians should not be undermined, as we can observe a daily battle for the truth to prevail between environmental and industrial groups [60] and between rigid ideologies generating contentious opinion exchanges and lenient liberal ideologies encouraging long-term solutions [35]. A recent study suggested that the tendency of political leaders to address environmental problems is primarily influenced by their aspiration to confirm an individual political status or conform to group norms. Younger politicians show a greater tendency to address environmental problems [63]. The role of science in relation to politics is inevitably subordinate as the political logic of the cost-benefit economic analysis approach usually prevails over the logic of science-based rules of reasoning [35]. This further narrows the research question, as one could ask whether it is necessary for science to enter the political decision-making process directly at the top of the system, where research work would have a significant impact, but could also be misused to achieve political goals.

3. EU WFD: Where Water Policy and Water Science Meet

The WFD is probably the most essential water-related EU directive concerning the demand for knowledge support. This has been demonstrated in its attempt to work towards a tangible water policy and research objective for achieving good water status in an integrated and sustainable manner by 2015 [10, 17, 64]. The knowledge support is facilitated by a participatory River Basin Management Plan (RBMP) system and implemented through water quality and ecosystem assessments, extensive monitoring, and inter- or multidisciplinary participatory and pragmatic research [65, 66]. The WFD represents a shift in approach from the traditional unilateral focus on sources of pollution and disturbance to a new combined approach. It also requires the collaborative production of new scientific knowledge that is effectively adopted and communicated between policy makers, policy implementers, and the research base informing policy work [66, 67].

Within the WFD Common Implementation Strategy (CIS), operational since 2001, nonbinding guidance documents on sharing good practices have been recognized for presenting and communicating results of research and demonstration projects in a readily usable form to policy makers at regional and national levels to show how to integrate the latest research developments into legislation [3, 65]. The WFD has been a significant force in raising awareness of the need to restore Europe's rivers, but its application during the first management cycle was limited [68, 69]. The deadline for all rivers to be in a good ecological state passed due to a lack of effective policies and an inappropriate timescale for the resilience of water systems, especially groundwater systems [14,17]. To tackle this problem, the WFD now requires member states to design and implement cost-effective programs or measures to achieve the “good status” objective by 2027 at the latest [14, 21].

At the same time, policy- and decision-making arenas will require the willingness and confidence of the water sector to engage with actors from other sectors. This is essential in making progress on water challenges [9] and for positioning the role of science as an equal partner in policy making and implementation [3, 7, 70]. A lack of science integration at the national/regional and river basin level can be seen in the results of recent studies that finished after the first cycle in 2015 [9,17,68,71,72]. This is at least partly due to a lack of appropriate communication about the relevant research results that would be of use to policy-relevant strategies [7, 70, 73]. Research or policy communities themselves encompass multiple smaller expertise areas or subsectors (e.g., surface water, groundwater, irrigation, energy, drinking water, wastewater, transport, environment protection, land use planning, tourism) grouped around separate disciplines with their own practices and language, which hampers integration and weakens communication [64,74]. This indicates a multiplicity of challenges related to spatial scales and the multiple levels of governance that are central to water resource management [75]. The WFD, a complex directive, is subject to many uncertainties related to implementing institutions in member states. Surprisingly, it has been argued that they are not systematically addressed in the directive or CIS guidance document. It is further argued that interest groups and the general public participating in RBMP implementation can manage and reduce uncertainties [76,77] if authorities group participants by scope, communicate with the public, work on capacity building, define timeliness, finance participation, and institutionalize stakeholder participation by creating organizational cultures that can facilitate processes [77,78]. Directives, legislation, and management programs are often implemented cyclically (e.g., RBMP on a six-year cycle, ND on a four-year cycle) and regularly reviewed, which provides windows of opportunity for participating actors to draw together new evidence and approaches for measure implementation [17, 79].

The Science-Policy Interface (SPI) for water activity was launched in 2010, led by DG RTD and the French national agency for water and aquatic ecosystems (ONEMA). It provides an interactive forum to ensure a cooperative interface between water researchers and policy makers, managers and stakeholders at both the EU and national level [3, 7, 69, 80, 81]. Strategic use of the SPI, with specific policy milestones and effective mechanisms, should facilitate the development of innovative solutions to achieve policy goals and to create the conditions necessary for transformative change towards an exchange platform enabling both scientists and policy makers to discuss similar research and policy agendas [3, 71]. SPI activities (e.g., Water Information System for Europe, WISE) also demonstrate that although networks/lobbying organizations (IAH, EGS, IGRAC, EUREAU, Eurometaux, EEB, etc.) already exist, they need stronger, even permanent, involvement [80].

The studied literature shows that the complex and dynamic nature of water governance in the EU requires flexible and reactive water policy networks that include network openness, business-like behaviour, less domination by professional engineering groups, and diversity of knowledge and values [75, 77, 82]. One could ask if science is still needed in the process of setting RBMPs and whether public participants with knowledge of local conditions and biased groups with wide ranges of partial interest can be good substitutes to replace scientists. The literature confirms that the role of scientific knowledge should be emphasized in the process to better understand complex and dynamic hydrological, agronomic, natural and socioeconomic systems and processes as well as to evaluate the soundness of potential solutions to water quality problems [77].


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