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


This research is unique because ten years after the EC DG RTD general report on the state of the dialogue between policy makers and the science community for maximizing the policy making impact of projects [4], there is again an examination of whether the role of science has changed in relation to policy and politics. Was there a shift towards a better mutual understanding in an established iterative process of knowledge and practice exchange within a policy for integrating scientific support for EU policy?

We argue that this study shows that the status quo observed [4] 10 years ago and declared as an unsatisfactory condition was overreached at the level of EU level policy making and that much more effort at the member state/region level is needed in the policy implementation phase, where politics plays an important role. In recent years, the EC has been strengthening communication with the science community through focus groups, partnerships, meetings and web portals. However, desk studies, workshops and interviews show that the EC, despite having a substantial research and innovation budget, is not making the most of the project results. The reason for this is due to the limited staff available to deal with all of the key tasks of the EC, so less mandatory ones like science-to-policy interaction are often neglected.

Workshop participants and interviewees were well informed about the legislation, structure and information paths and about the importance of lobbying in the EU system between the European Commission, European Parliament, EU Council, corporations, NGOs and different research associations. EU legislation gives member states quite an important role in implementing EU legislation and common policies at the local level. They have the freedom to decide on the processes for addressing the issues, ways of implementing solutions, and the role of science in WFD-promoted integrated policy making. While some participants argued that legislation at the EU level should be unified and that high-level cohesion should be reached at the level of member states, other participants defended the current premise that each member state, region or local community should have the opportunity to shape its variety of general EU legislation on water protection or agriculture. Only the common goals at the EU level agreed upon by all member states (WFD, ND, CAP, SDG) should be followed. Nevertheless, science plays a vital role in supporting both types of policy making.

The Nitrates Directive does not have a set date for when the targets have to be achieved, unlike the WFD. Very few member states or regions set an exact load reduction that needs to be achieved, although border conditions (water quality, nutrient mass balance) are known and confirmed by science. Implementation of the SUPD has been delayed in some member states. There is much legislation under the implementation that still has to be fully implemented by member states. Barriers to providing the conditions necessary for enhancing the role of science in EU policy making and implementation are often connected with the political will to reach target goals, scarce instruction on the legislation implementation process, and a lack of funding opportunities for science to be included in policy making and implementation. We argue that examples from individual member states (Ireland, Scotland) show that smart policy makers can, by enhancing the role of science in the policy making and implementation process, generate positive effects on establishing links between water and agriculture policy.

Reflecting on the role of science in light of the EU legislation and decision-making process opened a discussion about public participation as part of the “democratic” impact on science. Public discussions, popular political actions relying on public opinion, and corporate interests can cause the overlooking of or even the change of scientifically correct results to suit a particular group’s agenda. Science as a methodological process should be done independently, while policy making is a democratic process. Research results should be made public and available for democratic policy making. A solution for improving this issue calls on scientists to use language that is understandable by policy makers and the wider public, while avoiding oversimplification and distortion of reality when reducing the complexity of the information. That is why we argue that the role of science should be differentiated from the role of public participation. Science should be seen as a mediator in the process of understanding complex and dynamic hydrological, agronomic, natural and socioeconomic systems and processes, as well as a tool for evaluating the soundness of potential solutions to water quality problems.

However, we could argue whether the political agenda of the EU, which informed this research project, and hence whether the political agenda promoted in this manuscript, is still fully up to date. The study shows a lack of progress in certain areas when it comes to improving the input provided by science. One could wonder to what extent this is the result of the political conditions that the EU and specifically the European Commission have been facing in recent years when it comes to technocratic decision making. We made an effort to carefully distinguish the informational input of science from democratic decision making, although we cannot be sure if all EU level actors, those included in this study and those not, fully appreciate this distinction. However, this is certainly one of the reasons for anti-EU sentiments, in particular on the radical left and right in the name of more accountable/Machiavellian rather than democratic decision making. These types of sentiments could be one of the reasons for more caution, and hence a lack of progress, at all European policy levels when it comes to implementing an agenda that may quickly be interpreted as technocratic or elitist.

This study shows that, according to the views of participants, relevant RIA EU research project results are taken up by the European Commission, Parliament or Council indirectly, as a source of ideas and information. Although the process is not straightforward, it may, over time, result in distinct impacts on policy formation. Results emanating from service contract studies for DGs are used to a much more significant degree and often literally. The commission uses the results of these studies in discussions with member states, showing that science has a clear role in supporting policy making and implementation of EU legislation. Such service contracts often have a limited scope and often address member state implementation of various directives rather than new science that is produced in RIA projects. However, many of the solutions that would enhanced the role of science in the case of agricultural impacts on drinking water quality have to be found by politicians at the national or regional level. WFD, ND, DWD and other directives give member state politicians the opportunity to prepare tailor-made measures in cooperation with science and with sufficient funding, which will contribute to clean surface and groundwater drinking water resources.

Based on our study results, we argue that establishing project clusters (science, policy, stakeholders, and citizens) for up-to-date policy challenges and stakeholder needs and with citizen involvement is a viable solution to enhance the role of science in the EU integrated policy making process. The aim is to establish longer-term relationships and communication flows between scientists and policy makers, which will contribute to achieving more sustainable management of ecosystem (water, food) services. 


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