As disaster readiness climbs up the EU agenda, a chief scientific advisor offers views on how Europe can harness its strengths.
By HORIZON STAFF
Of all the areas of EU activity, crisis management may be among the least well-known and the most rapidly evolving.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the ensuing refugee wave have led to the EU’s largest operation under the two-decade-old Civil Protection Mechanism (CPM).
In 2021, as wildfires swept across Europe, countries including Austria, Italy, Greece and Cyprus relied on the CPM to help fight the flames. The same summer, Belgium requested CPM support to cope with devastating floods.
It was also activated in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic that began in 2020.
Underpinned by an Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) staffed around the clock, the CPM bolsters cooperation among Member States in responding to disasters.
In 2019, the CPM was upgraded with the addition of a “rescEU” component featuring a new European reserve of resources including firefighting aircraft, medical evacuation planes, medicines and field hospitals.
With Europe bracing for more frequent and testing crises, scientific advice in the field has become increasingly important for policymakers. Recent recommendations on strategic crisis management in the EU emerged from the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM).
This mechanism includes the Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA) consortium, which gathers expertise from more than 100 institutions across Europe, and the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors (GSCA), who provide independent guidance informed by the evidence.
Horizon Magazine asked Maarja Kruusmaa, one of seven GSCA members and a professor at Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia, to comment on the role of scientific advice in EU crisis management. Kruusmaa, an Estonian native, is a computer scientist with a research focus on underwater robotics.
1. What is the context for the SAM recommendations and what makes them useful?
Scientific advice for strategic crisis management was requested by the European Commission, particularly by Research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel and Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, so clearly it was feeling a sense of urgency and need for better guidance in turbulent times.
Scientific advice is based on scientific evidence and, for that, SAPEA has gathered evidence from the best experts in Europe and worldwide.
SAPEA members are European academies and networks of European academies that each will search for the best expertise among their members and other researchers in their countries.
2. What role does time play in scientific advice for crisis management?
The timeliness of scientific advice is important and gathering evidence takes time.
However, different crises – be they earthquakes, heatwaves, wars, cyberattacks or whatever – have certain common features. This makes it possible to draw lessons from one or another crisis and apply it to the next one, even if we do not know what the next one is exactly going to be.
SAPEA has done great work in bringing out widely applicable approaches for crisis prevention, management and recovery.
3. Can scientific advice be given in advance of a crisis to help speed responses to it?
After spending lots of time reading and listening to the evidence of the best scientific experts, I am convinced that a great deal of advice can be provided in advance.
It means we can prepare for future crises even if we do not know exactly what they are. Just to bring out one of our main recommendations: coordination and information sharing between different actors involved in crisis management can be improved and this can and should be done in advance.
A positive example here is the ERCC, which has done exactly that, and learning and getting better while facing one crisis after another.
4. Are the nature and frequency of crises changing?
Yes. We predict more instances of polycrisis. That means many crises at the same time, cascading crises with one causing the next one and crises spreading across borders.
This is because the world is becoming more tightly connected. For example, a cyberattack can cause damage in seconds on the other side of the planet or diseases can spread worldwide in weeks by masses of people travelling on planes.
It does not mean we did not have cascading crisis before, but technology makes them spread faster and farther.
5. Does the EU need better crisis management and, if so, how can it be achieved?
Yes, Europe needs better crisis management. If the nature of crises is changing, the way we manage them needs to change too.
Europe has already taken steps in the right direction, with the ERCC and whole CPM being good examples.
However, as cross-sectoral crises are increasing, we need better coordination and cooperation to tackle transborder and transboundary crises.
6. What are the EU’s crisis-management strengths and are they harnessed enough?
Europe is culturally, economically and geographically diverse. The Member States and sometimes also the regions of the EU have high autonomy.
In a complex crisis, autonomy can be a strength because it allows a fast response on site and in a way that is most suitable for the local circumstances.
However, on the EU level there is lot of work to make sure the local, regional and national authorities cooperate and coordinate with each other.
7. How important are things such as EU firefighting aircraft and medicine stocks?
Assets such as firefighting planes and certain medical supplies are expensive, especially when they stay in stock and possibly won’t get used in their lifetime.
It is therefore beneficial to all Member States to share responsibility for storing some of those critical assets and share them if disaster strikes. The same holds for information.
However, here it is especially important to keep working on the pooling of knowledge and integration platforms. These are databases that bring together information from several sources in formats that are standardised. This permits data from various sources to be merged.
This could, for example, be data on ocean currents collected from the same location used to collect information on temperatures or wind speeds. Or it could be data from various locations in Europe. All this is important because, when the crisis hits, you need to make decisions fast.
8. How do you rate the EU response to the Covid-19 pandemic that began in 2020?
The success was obviously what scientists could quickly find out about the nature of the disease and develop the vaccines.
Regarding what could have been done better, it would have been more useful for governments to rely on interdisciplinary teams of scientific advice – in other words, groups of specialists from various fields. We could see how problems spread from the medical sphere to the social, economic, educational and beyond.
But we now have a perfect opportunity to learn from a previous crisis, generalise and apply the lessons learned for the next.
9. Had you taken a different career path, what would it likely have been and why?
I can imagine having taken a different path – not because computer science and underwater robotics are not interesting but because many other things are interesting too.
For example, Earth science or languages. I have also founded a few companies and can very well imagine an entrepreneurial career path.
Curiosity helps a lot when it comes to giving scientific advice. If you are inherently curious, it helps you to listen to experts in other fields and understand them. It also helps to translate the knowledge between disciplines and professions.
Scientific advisors are actually translators – they translate the scientific evidence to policymakers. It helps to know and be curious about how both worlds operate and what the other side needs to know.
The article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.