EUROPE: Brussels guessing game over science adviser

One of the first major appointments by the newly re-appointed President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, will be that of a chief scientific adviser - a post that has not existed before. The adviser and his or her office will form part of a major review of the way scientific advice is developed and communicated to the Commission, but it is not yet clear what authority the new post will carry or who candidates for the job might be.

Barroso announced he would make the appointment during last month's hearings at the European Parliament, into his bid for a second five-year term as president.

Although the Commission is increasingly active in the scientific research field, it lacks a single authority able to deliver proactive expert advice throughout the EU decision-taking process.

There is a slew of agencies, departments and committees devoted to specific subjects like GM, nanotechnology, novel foods, new fuels and animal diseases. But in practice they have a limited fact-providing function, with political decisions that arise from their findings left to the Commission itself. This reflects the consensual nature of decision-taking by a body like the EU with 27 member countries.

A major question, therefore, will be whether and how Barroso intends to depart from this pattern by giving the new science adviser a political role, and how that will mesh with the present institutional framework in Brussels.

Another vital question is how the new office will share responsibilities with existing agencies like the European Food Safety Authority, the European Chemicals Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Beyond these narrowly -focused groups are others with a much broader canvas such as the Joint Research Centre, the Bureau of Economic Policy Advisers and the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies.

Finally there will be staff questions to be determined. Many of the expert groups advising the Commission are at present ad hoc panels composed of experts seconded from member states for short periods, or national officials attending perhaps just half a dozen meetings a year. Will the new adviser have a permanent, dedicated staff? How many will there be, at what level of professional ability, and to what extent will they be recruited on the basis of national quotas?

No date has yet been indicated for the new office to start work, but it is unlikely to be in the current calendar year. Also not clear is whether the new scientific adviser will have to be questioned and approved by the European Parliament before taking office.

A lot is still unclear, giving rise to energetic speculation in Brussels. But many people in the science and research sectors seem to be anticipating significant change.