Bridging science and policy in Europe: Insights from Pearl Dykstra MAE#

In this interview, Pearl Dykstra discusses her roles within the European Scientific Advice Mechanism, and the importance of collaboration in science and policy.

Pearl Dykstra

About Pearl Dykstra#

Pearl Dykstra MAE, Professor emerita of Empirical Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam and member of the Human Mobility, Governance, Environment and Space section since 2016, is recognised not only for her scholarly achievements, but also her significant contributions to science advice and policymaking. She was appointed as a Member of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the Cabinet of European Commissioners in 2015, served as its Deputy Chair between 2016 and 2019, and currently acts as an expert to the European Commission.

In addition to her advisory roles, Professor Dykstra has served in various leadership positions, including as Scientific Director of the open data infrastructure ODISSEI and Director of Research of the Department of Public Administration and Sociology at the European University Rotterdam (2015 – 2019). In 2024, she became a Member of the Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub Steering Group.

Read the interview#

Can you tell us about your background, and your journey towards joining the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission?

From November 2015 to 2020, I had the pleasure, the honour and the privilege to be part of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors. I was there from the very start, so that was an exciting time because it was also the period during which we established our procedures.

Throughout my academic career, I’ve always had an interest in the practical and policy implications of my research. I started out at the Demographic Institute in The Hague and, as we were very close to Parliament, the Institute emphasised the importance of policy relevance to the research that we were doing. There would be regular sessions where researchers from the Institute and representatives from various ministries would meet. We would present our findings, and they would come with questions and respond to the outcomes. This dialogue gave me great experience in working with different ‘languages’ and different emphases within the policy world.

This experience came in very useful when I started working with the European Commission. I was nominated by the Erasmus University Rotterdam, and when they suggested putting forward my name I immediately thought ‘yes’. 263 nominations were received from universities and academies, 14 people were selected for interview, and I took the opportunity to go to Brussels and interview in-person. I was selected to be one of the seven members of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission. It was a fantastic group – we got along together famously, and were a strong representation geographically, as well as being a nice blend of ages and disciplines.

Now that I’ve been working for Brussels I get asked a lot, particularly by young scholars, whether there’s specific training, or a pathway to follow to reach a role like this. It does not exist, although there are many people who suggest that it might be a good idea to do a sabbatical within a ministry or a municipality, to get firsthand experience of translating findings from research into policy. Within the Group, all of us had extensive experience in dealing with policymakers, understanding how to communicate findings, and also how to listen to policymakers and translate their questions into issues that might be addressed by research.”

How does the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors contribute to the policymaking process within the European Commission? What special contribution can social scientists, such as yourself, make?

What’s wonderful is to see is the work of the Chief Scientific Advisors being used. The academies consortium, SAPEA, and the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) Unit in Brussels do a wonderful job identifying new legislation or policies where the work of the Chief Scientific Advisors or SAPEA is cited. Although I’m not part of the Group anymore, I’m still linked to it as an external expert advisor. There’s around 15 people in the SAM Unit, in Brussels. They talk with the various services in the Commission to find out what the issues are on their minds and also ask, “The Chief Scientific Advisors are thinking about addressing this topic. Would this be of interest to you?” Another very important aspect of their work is policy scoping. When the Advisors are developing their recommendations, the SAM Unit knows how to specifically target the recommendations. There are key questions to think about: Is legislation being evaluated? Does one of the Commissioners have to hold a speech at the G20? What kind of legislative forum might be relevant to target the recommendations? One example is the European Semester. The other important feature is the collaboration with SAPEA. SAPEA brings the best of science to the Scientific Advice Mechanism. I think those factors together contribute to our effectiveness.

The special contribution of social scientists is examination of issues like power, institutional path dependency, motivations and perceptions. These are the kinds of factors that determine whether change will take place. If a policy is geared towards bringing about some kind of a change or some form of transformation, what are the barriers and the facilitators of such change? Another is that the social sciences are looking at public administration and political science. If a measure is introduced, what kind of evidence is there that the measure will be successful? When should you introduce a Scientific Opinion to be most effective, and communicate with policymakers? That’s where the importance of social scientists comes in.

How important are collaboration and communication between scientists, policymakers and the wider public in addressing complex societal challenges?

It’s crucial. One thing that we really learned while working as the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors is that there has to be a dialogue – an understanding of what the policy question is, and what science can bring. To be effective, there has to be a negotiation between understanding the question and using science to answer it, and proposing a way forward. It’s not as if we present a ready-made product and then hold a press conference, that isn’t how it works. We have to make good use of experts in science communication. One wonderful example is what the World Health Organisation (WHO) did during COVID, where they utilised communication experts for campaigns. They used their insights to develop content on vaccinations and the importance of wearing masks, which was posted to social media platforms. They found scientists who were very good at communicating, which was the key. Not every scientist is a good communicator, nor do they have to be. But that’s an excellent example of how clever communication can work effectively.

There’s an issue of debate among scientists of how best you should deliver your message, and one of the big topics here is how you communicate uncertainty. We felt as Chief Scientific Advisors that we had to acknowledge that there can be disagreement among scientists, but also ask why. The causal pathway may look more complicated than it initially appears, and rather than hide the complexities, they should be shared openly and transparently. We should have clear paths of communication with wider public. An exciting new development is collaboration and co-creation – developing questions together with people who are very knowledgeable on a specific topic, not just via research but through their lived experience. Increasingly, you see researchers in the medical field who have deep understanding of their research because it affects them personally in some way. Another example of lived experience is the use of indigenous knowledge, and very often it’s the knowledge of native peoples. For example, in Earth Sciences, when researchers saw odd bumps in the Australian landscape, they assumed they were linked with cloud formation, or water, or even magnetism. It turned out to be that the Aboriginals knew exactly what these bumps were – termite hills. Another example is US researchers in the Pacific, who are working with native American Indians on how they farm clams, which is superior to existing methods. Working with local and native peoples with lived experience is an invaluable form of collaboration and communication. In the social sciences particularly, it’s key to not just extract knowledge from our respondents, but also give something back and show the benefits of participation in research.

In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing scientific challenges or opportunities facing Europe today?

I think a lot of the challenges aren’t unique to Europe and it’s crucial to think of the wider global context. One pressing challenge is rebuilding the relationships between the UK and continental Europe, and the European Commission. Another challenge would be bridging some divides that currently exist, such as unequal opportunities. SAPEA has not just focused on researchers from North-West Europe, but also those in countries who haven’t had the funding opportunities that those in the North-West have. It’s important to work more with Widening Countries, to export our knowledge and our skills to help them. This is where policy advising is crucial, to present the model of our work in Eastern Europe and beyond, to see whether they might want to adopt that model. This where science diplomacy comes in.

A challenging topic is one of academic freedom, with demands and even attacks made on researchers. Another issue concerns different approaches to the distribution of research funding. For example, perhaps we could focus on the individual researchers and give them a sum of money, and then they tell us in retrospect what they’ve done.

One of the opportunities that we have to embrace more strongly is to do evidence syntheses in publications. I’ve said the best gift we have for society is to make sense of a body of knowledge. It’s not the same as writing a literature review, which can be critical, but an exercise in answering questions such as: What is known about a topic, and what don’t we know? What’s the quality of the evidence? To publish on that I think would be a great service to society, and we should encourage our researchers to do that more often.

Another opportunity is to create greater diversity in careers. For example, if we’re thinking about policy advising, could we introduce the possibility of doing sabbaticals, so that researchers gain firsthand experience of the policymaking process? I’m the Director of a social science infrastructure called ODISSEI (Open Data Infrastructure for Social Science and Economic Innovations). We have large grants, through which we employ currently around 80 people, who are working on developing infrastructure and creating opportunities for other researchers. I would also like to introduce infrastructure-building as a trajectory in a person’s career. These are the kinds of opportunities that I would also see not only for Europe but for worldwide science in general.

Finally, I see artificial intelligence as an opportunity for science. I think AI has a lot to offer, but we have to be very critical of AI, and train our students accordingly. Many people emphasise the negative aspects such as the biases and the lack of transparency, but I do think we have to embrace it.

As a member of the Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub Steering Group, are there specific goals or outcomes you hope to achieve through your involvement with the Knowledge Hub?

I see myself as an investor of the Hub. I’ve recently attended my first Steering Group meeting, and I am very impressed with the work that’s done in the Hub. What I would hope for is that my networks become more knowledgeable about the Hub, and better aware of the quality of the work that’s being done in the Cardiff Hub. I would like to be an ambassador, to show why the Hub is there, and what its unique contribution is to the European policy and science landscape.”

About the Scientific Advice Mechanism#

The Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) provides independent scientific evidence and policy recommendations to the European institutions by request of the College of Commissioners.

The Group of Chief Scientific Advisors is a key part of the Scientific Advice Mechanism. Their role is to provide independent scientific advice and policy recommendations to the College of European Commissioners to inform their decision-making, and thus contribute to the quality of EU legislation. The goal is to have a broad vision which collectively reflects an understanding of important scientific developments, including interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research.

SAPEA is a consortium of Academy Networks, funded by Horizon Europe, representing a large number of academies from different countries. SAPEA’s role in the Scientific Advice Mechanism is to provide independent, high-quality reviews of the evidence to inform the policy recommendations made by the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors. Academia Europaea is one of the partners in SAPEA, with most of the work undertaken by the AE Cardiff Hub. Cardiff is responsible for the citation analysis on policy impact, referred to by Professor Dykstra.

The interview was posted on the 8th April 2024 and conducted by the Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub.
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