Forging Closer Links Between Science and Policy

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, May 10, 2001 (ENS) - European scientists meeting this week in Stockholm have been urged to work in close partnership with policy makers to chart a course toward sustainable development.

European Union Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom and Swedish Environment Minister Kjell Larsson both argued that the effectiveness of research would be greatly enhanced if more effort was made to link it with green policies.


EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin (Photo courtesy European Commission)
Joining the two politicians at the opening of Bridging the Gap, a conference organised by the Swedish environmental protection agency, was European Union Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. He told delegates that sustainable development research would feature heavily in the next European Union five year research program, agreed politically in December 1998 and due to begin next year.

"I want to make sustainability a trademark of the European Research Area," Busquin said.

Wallstrom used her speech to call for more backing for greener technologies. She also asked researchers to improve their communication. "If we want to deliver solutions, we must make sure that research findings are disseminated. One of the accusations often made is that even where research could be useful, the target audience does not hear about it," she said.


Validating tests for mad cow disease at a lab in Geel, Belgium (Photo courtesy EU Joint Research Center)
Larsson stressed the importance of reducing the "time lag" between research findings and their use by policy makers. "We will focus on the crucial, intimate links that exist between research and environmental policy. No other policy area depends, in my opinion, on research as much as environmental policy does," the Swedish environment minister said.

Larsson pointed to the most prominent example of research as a driver for global political action, "the depletion of our ozone layer, which quickly attracted a great deal of attention and led to political negotiations and finally a decision in the form of the Montreal Protocol," he told delegates.

But Larsson noted several examples of environmental problems that could have been corrected much earlier if the gap between science and politics had been narrower. "Examples of this include the use of PCBs, mercury and asbestos. These substances caused considerable damage to both our working environment and the external environment before political decisions restricted their use," Larsson said.

"At that time we actually knew less about the risks of PCBs than we now know about the risks associated with brominated flame-retardants. Still no formal political decisions have yet been taken to phase out brominated flame-retardants," warned the minister.

Brominated flame-retardants are a class of brominated chemicals commonly used in electronic products as a means for reducing flammability. In computers, they are used mainly in printed circuit boards, in components such as connectors, in plastic covers and in cables. They are also used in plastic covers of TV sets and in domestic kitchen appliances.

A variety of scientific observations indicate that some of these substances might act as endocrine disrupters. Levels of one of them in human breast milk is doubling every five years, and this has prompted concern because of the effect of these chemicals in young animals.


Computers are full of brominated flame-retardants (Photo courtesy Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition)
A European Commission Recommendation to reduce the risk of emissions of one brominated flame retardant, penta-BDE, by phasing out its use was published in March, but the Commission is waiting for the results of more scientific studies before deciding on whether restrictions are necessary or not.

Larsson believes this lag is the result of economic and commercial interests in a globalized world being much stronger today than before, "something which obviously affects the research establishment and the role of researchers, as well as the political establishment," he said.

"In the light of this," Larsson stressed, "it is vital that research and not least environmental research receives adequate public funding in order to pursue public interest for the public good research that is free from commercial interest and pressures."