Rebuilding trust in science

July 10, 2002

Brussels, 09 July 2002

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In today's technical world, more and more decisions rely on scientific expertise. But scientists working at the borders of human knowledge cannot be categorical in their pronouncements. They can make the best possible predictions in the circumstances, but we rely also on politicians to make wise judgements of value. Inevitably, things will go wrong from time to time. But the contemporary crisis of credibility that governments are facing seems to say we need to fundamentally remake the way we take decisions, and the way we share information about the factors involved.

The need for improved governance is generally accepted. A decline in the public's trust of governments and politicians can be observed across the European Union and elsewhere - including in the United States. Putting that right is a priority and requires action by politicians, civil society and scientists.

It is easy to find symptoms of people's loss of trust in their governments. Low turn-outs in elections in France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Cynicism towards mainstream politicians within the European Union and Russia. Electoral success for extreme politicians.

It is just as simple to quote cases where the failure of governance has led to crises for the population of the European Union. The breakdown of the Chernobyl reactor was a predictable risk, yet self-evidently governments failed to prevent it. Politicians were wrong to use the best scientific advice they had - that BSE was unlikely to spread to humans - as an excuse not to take much stronger action in defence of public health.

As the public's cynicism has become clearer, so it has become more obvious that the European Commission must be involved in charting a way forward. Equally, as many of the failures of governance relate to scientific policy, it is just as obvious that a more effective structure of governance will affect scientists almost as much as it affects politicians. The fact that a question involves technical complications is no reason to swathe it in secrecy - after all subjects such as genetic engineering, nuclear power or climate change are likely to provoke all the more societal disruption the less they are generally understood. So what is needed is a better system for informing the public, articulating their concerns, and taking them on board in policy formation.

The white paper

In response to this crisis of confidence, the European Commission published last year a white paper(1) on how to improve governance. It recognises that the crisis is even more of a challenge to the Commission than it is to individual governments. Too often "Brussels" is blamed for difficult decisions that member states have, in fact, agreed upon. The European Union seldom wins credit for the things it gets right. The complexity of European structures leads to citizen alienation. And the Union often lacks the political authority to act when co-ordinated action is required, such as with food safety, unemployment and foreign policy.

"Many people are losing confidence in a poorly understood and complex system [in the European Union] to deliver the policies that they want," it concludes. "The Union is often seen as remote and at the same time too intrusive." In response, the white paper suggests a handful of principles which the Commission and member states might agree to uphold:

- Openness: European, national, regional, local and, indeed, global institutions should adopt greater transparency;
- Participation: There should be greater public participation in policy development, from creation to implementation;
- Accountability: Lines of responsibility should be clear, with general understanding of the different roles of the legislative and executive bodies;
- Effectiveness: Policies need to be effective, timely, with clear objectives, evaluating future impacts and past experience;
- Coherence: Policies and actions must be coherent and easily understood.

These five principles should operate within the already agreed wider framework of proportionality and subsidiarity.

Action

Principles only become relevant if they are converted into action. The report proposes a series of more concrete measures which would change the relationship of citizens to the Commission and member states.

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