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Editorial by Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Environment

“We need to look more closely at ways to reward environmental research”

EU environment policy needs to be based on solid scientific evidence, because everyone involved – from the ministers who decide on the legislation down to the people who implement it – needs to be convinced of its worth.

The facts, figures and analyses that emerge from research by JRC scientists feed policymakers, who weave this evidence into policies to generate improved environmental outcomes for the citizens. It’s a vital process – successful environment policy depends on high quality ‘knowledge’ from the scientific community to address problems efficiently and cost-effectively. Science can provide innovations to generate breakthroughs that will solve emerging environmental challenges. But policy-oriented research faces numerous challenges. Often it is not rewarded in the same way as scientific research, with no rigorous peer review or publication process. Neither is it motivated (like industrial research) by patenting and the prospect of commercialisation. The lack of reward mechanisms consequently attracts less interest and investment. I am very much aware that we need to look more closely at ways of rewarding such research. Horizon 2020 spells out the obligation for EU-funded research to support policy, and that is a step forward in valorising policy research inputs.

The fact is we need research like never before. Many adverse global trends are characterised by complex, interlinked mechanisms and processes. Science needs to help us address these trends, identifying risks for our environment and circumscribing the uncertainties we face in new technologies such as the exploitation of unconventional gases. We need science to spell out alternative paths of development, and to sell ideas like resource efficiency, the green economy and low-carbon living to a sceptical public. Tipping points have to be identified and illustrated in ways that suggest a better way of living. That means more engagement with social sciences, and exploring ways to alter behaviour across all sections of society. Trends need to be reversed and progress towards goals needs to be demonstrated.

Science and scientists will have a key role to play in transforming the economy, creating growth and jobs and fostering the increased sense of well-being that can come from an improved environment.

Some of the research we will need is already underway. Researchers are already engaged in mapping and assessing the ecosystems and the benefits that nature provides ‘for free’, for example. I hope the result will give us hard figures that show how our economies depend on healthy, resilient ecosystems. Water supply and pollution is problematic in many parts of the European Union, and the science underpinning the Commission’s Water Blueprint – due out soon – will be an important step forward in addressing those and other water issues. We will also need good science to protect our soils and ensure sustainable land use to reduce land degradation – an objective set out in the Rio+20 outcome. In these and many other issues the Joint Research Centre has provided key data to support policy, and I trust that the excellent collaboration will continue.

Science of course is only useful when it reaches its target audience. Policy-makers need regular information about recent findings, so services like the “Science for Environment Policy News Alert” do help in bridging the gap between researchers and those who depend on their results.

My hope is that the future will bring an even closer relationship between the scientific and the policy-making communities. In thanking JRC colleagues for their support so far, I would add that far from being almost done, our work on environment has hardly begun. We still know far less than we need to know. But whatever else happens in the EU economy, scientific research into the environment will be a growth area. That we can guarantee.

Janez Potočnik,

EU Commissioner for Environment