The Independent Science Panel (ISP), launched 10 May 2003 at a public conference in London, UK, consists of dozens of prominent scientists from all over the world, spanning the disciplines of agroecology, agronomy, biomathematics, botany, chemical medicine, ecology, epidemiology, histopathology, microbial ecology, molecular genetics, nutritional biochemistry, physiology, plant biotechnology, taxonomy, toxicology and virology (http://www.i-sis.org.uk/isp/ISPMembers.php).
They share a deep concern over the commercialisation of genetic modification (GM) and other technologies without the due process of thorough scientific assessment, informed public consultation and public consent; and are dedicated to researching and actively promoting science for a sustainable world through education, advocacy and social engagement.
The European Commission has now published its Proposal for the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). This will form the basis for funding the European Union's science and technology for the period 2007-2013, though we will not know how much of it will be implemented until the EU has agreed its overall budget and, with it, the budget for science.
The Independent Science Panel (ISP) submitted an earlier comment on FP7 to the European Commission (1 April 2005) stressing the overriding need for independent science (http://www.i-sis.org.uk/ISPF7.php), which has now been endorsed by 239 individuals and organisations from all over the world (http://www.i-sis.org.uk/isp/endorsements/signed.php). Our present comment is in addition to the points made in the earlier submission.
We wish to comment on three aspects of FP7 where we are in general agreement with the aims but are concerned about what will happen in practice. These are (i) science and the developing countries, (ii) independent and innovative science, and (iii) science in society.
We welcome the proposals to cooperate with developing countries, but they must be given much higher priority than is suggested in the Proposal. They are mentioned in three sections of Appendix 1, at the end of the section on Cooperation (p15), at the end of the section on Capacities (p44) and at the end of the section on nonnuclear actions of the Joint Research Centre. In each case they are only a very small part of a much broader policy.
Science with and for developing countries must be a priority in its own right and should be a key part of the EU's contribution to the developing world. We note that Directorate General for Development has neither a section specifically devoted to science nor a high-ranking chief scientific adviser, unlike (for example) the UK Department for International Development. DG DEV should make science a major concern within the Directorate itself, rather than relying on other Directorates for whom the interests of the developing world are secondary.
There should be two related emphases: 1. Research that is of immediate relevance to developing countries. This would include sustainability, both in agriculture and the food system in general, and appropriate technology. Funding would come from the EU, and scientists and institutions in the EU would naturally be very much involved, but much of the research would be carried out in the developing countries, which would also be largely responsible for the agenda. 2. Assistance to developing countries to strengthen their own science and technology. Similarly, under Health on p17, after "emerging epidemics" in the section on objectives and again as a separate point under "Activities: translating research for human health", there should be explicit reference to neglected diseases of the third world (such as sleeping sickness and Chagas disease. Again, DG DEV should be taking the lead.
We support the aim expressed in the Proposal to support "investigator driven frontier research" but we are concerned about how this will be put into practice.
Committees that award research grants tend to be much too conservative, especially when there is no shortage of competent proposals that are almost guaranteed to deliver what they promise. The European Research Council (ERC), with a relatively large budget compared with most national Research Councils, will be in a position to earmark a modest proportion of its funds for genuinely innovative projects, a proportion of which may fail to deliver. We have suggested 10% in our earlier comment.
This area will have to be treated differently from the rest of ERC funding in two respects:
1. The ERC must be willing to consider proposals for amounts that are smaller than the present minimum. EU support will generally be sought not because the amount is too large for national research councils but because only a funding body with a large budget can fund enough such projects to expect overall success even with some failures in the portfolio. 2. The success of the innovation programme must be judged on the programme as a whole, not on individual projects. Indeed, for every project in such a programme to succeed should be taken as a sign that the committee is not doing its job properly.
(We owe this apparently radical suggestion to Professor Susan Cozzens, former Director of the Office of Policy Support at the US National Science Foundation, and also to the brief that Microsoft gave to Professor Roger Needham when he was setting up their European Laboratory in Cambridge.)
We welcome the aim of encouraging a broader engagement between scientists and the public at large. For this to be effective, committees and regulatory bodies must include both scientists and laypersons. Above all, it is unsatisfactory to have committees of laypeople who are expected to discuss only the social aspects, taking the science as given.
Difficult questions of ethics, of health and safety, and of the environment typically arise in those areas where the science is not certain, especially, though not always, in rapidly developing areas. In such areas, it is essential that the scientific members of the committee adequately represent the differing views and that they and the lay members together reach decisions that take the uncertainty fully into account, in accordance with the precautionary principle.
When this aspect of FP7 is being reviewed, there should be an audit on how many changes in policy and practice have come about through work funded in this area. Obviously not every investigation, however thorough, will lead to changes, so the assessment will have to be made on a programme basis (cf. our comments on innovation); but if very few significant changes result from the work of these committees, that should be taken as a sign that they have not been effective.
Dr. Peter T Saunders Professor of Applied Mathematics, King's College On behalf of Independent Science Panel
Article first published 24/08/05
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