SciDF@Bars – From the laboratory to the Parliament. Scientific advice

With a beer in hand and a distended ambience, last 26th of April we discussed about scientific advice in politics in our SciDF@Bars with four experts on the topic

Twenty years ago on the very same day our SciDF@Bars about scientific advice took place, our first speaker Xavier Querol, professor at the IDAEA-CSIC, with long experience in counseling, was called to intervene in one of the greatest environmental crisis in Spain caused by the breakage of a mining raft in Aznalcóllar (Seville). With this reminder of the importance of scientific advice, that if taken into account could have avoided the leakage of tones of contaminants, we started an engaging and fruitful discussion about the tools and limitations for scientific counseling in Catalonia and Spain.

Montse Daban, with a past as researcher in molecular biology and currently advisor in the Secretary of Universities and Research at the Generalitat of Catalonia, concisely provided us with an overview of the topic. She began with a fact: only five of the parliamentarians in Catalonia have a background in science and technology, thus the need for scientific advice in policy making. In Catalonia we already count with organisms such as the CASOST, for medical advice, the IEC (Institute of Catalan Studies) or the CAPCIT (the Parliament Science and Technology Advisory Council), which brings together politicians and directors of scientific institutions on a tri-monthly basis.

It was precisely talking about CAPCIT that the round table started with the intervention of Alícia Romero, deputy in the Catalan Parliament (PSC). Alícia was critical with the use of CAPCIT as a tool for scientific advice, given that it is the politicians who must bring the topics to the table and the lack of knowledge and, sometimes, the variable proactivity, may be an obstacle. In its defense, Josep Samitier, our fourth speaker and director of the IBEC, as well as member of CAPCIT, alluded to the good disposition of the politicians in the organism and explained that, without a systematic dynamic, the scientists usually convene a committee of experts to compose a report on the topic of interest.

Alícia also pointed out the lack of resources as a limitation, as there is not a fixed structure to provide the politicians with a team of advisors, whereas in other European countries around five advisors per deputy are assigned. About the lack of means, Xavier believes that any expert would be diligent elaborating a report if requested by the administration and that it would be done altruistically, as a social duty.

Xavier talked from his own experience about the impact of a controversial decision on the career of a politician as a determinant for following the scientific evidence, regardless the political colour. He also noted the difference of spans in politics and science, especially in relation with the environment, which needs long-term regulations. In this subject, Alícia believes that, while short-termist politicians exist, there are brave leaders who implement polemical measures such as the prohibition of smoking indoors a few years back. In this regard, Josep highlighted the role of the public opinion and the importance of involving and educating society in the process of decision making.

With criticism, Xavier mentioned the Volkswagen case and how the European regulations were adapted to the cars pollutant emission levels, to illustrate the relevance of the science-corporates relationships to counteract the corporates influence in politics. In the U.S. these are stronger than in Europe and science plays an important role advising enterprises of the private sector.

We would have loved to continue and bring other issues to the discussion – e.g. knowing their opinion about the recent Science in the Parliament (Ciencia en el Parlamento) initiative – but the round table had to conclude and it did with a round of questions followed by the discussion of a case study in which the need for interaction among politicians, scientists, citizens and the private sector was emphasized.

Strengthen the CAPCIT and, not only broaden the scientific advice in the Parliament, but also in the rest of public organisms, was in the agenda of several of the political parties surveyed by SciDF last December, prior to the autonomic elections in Catalonia (#TambéVotemCiència). With the hope that this aspiration materializes and our will to continue enhancing the communication among scientists and the other actors in the game, we closed this edition of SciDF@Bars. Until next time!

Berta Gallego Páramo

See some clips of the event here. You can also find the whole event in YouTube.