Axel Singhofen is Advisor on Health and Environment Policy for the party of the Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA) in the European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium. Here, he talks to Vera Koester for ChemViews Magazine about the work of a legislator, science communication, and the challenge to make responsible decisions in light of scientific uncertainty.
What is your role in the European Parliament?
I work as an advisor to the Greens. I am defending the interest of the Greens, meaning we want to see a world that is respectful of human health and the environment .
You can call Parliament a law-making machine. We continuously get proposals from the European Commission for a new law or for revising an old law. These are just proposals. The institutions actually adopting or modifying the law are the Parliament on the one side and the Council of the 28 Member States of the European Union on the other side.
We can say: “We want to change this.”, “We agree with this.”, “We want to delete this.” … To do so, you first need to study the law, understand it, and then think: “Is it good enough, is it green enough, what needs to be changed.” That is, of course, from a green perspective; others will to do the opposite. You then build alliances and see what the majorities within the Parliament want. Then we enter into negotiations with the Council, which might have completely different majorities. We might want to strengthen the law in one direction and the Council might want to do the opposite. Then you need to find compromises. Basically, it is all about trying to improve laws so that we have better protection of human health and the environment.
In addition, we have a veto right in certain situations. We used that, for example, when the Commission tried to change an essential element in a basic legal act via the backdoor of an implementing act. This was unlawful, and we successfully vetoed that. So it is basically both the role of a legislator and the role of controlling the Commission as an executive.
How easy is it to get your voice heard?
The Greens are a relatively small group in the European Parliament, so we always need to build alliances. To do so, you need to build up relations. You need to have credibility. You need to be respected for your competence so that other people will team up with you. It is long-term work, but it is certainly a way to have a major influence.
During your discussions, how important is science and how important is a good story? Or do both go hand in hand?
I think they go hand in hand. I care above all about the arguments and science, and I need this as a basis to be able to convince others. But then, of course, you always need to understand what makes the others tick so that you can make them interested in the case. Still, I am not at all a spin doctor.
I sometimes see how communication departments, including our own, start with what might sound like a nice story, which however does not not necessarily fit the facts … Often the truth is far more complex than the story you might want to tell. I leave the communication to our communication specialists most of the time, just try to make sure that there are no mistakes in what we say, and otherwise concentrate on the work as a legislator.
Where do you get the information you base your decisions on?
The Commission’s proposals always come with in-depth impact assessments. They provide a very good knowledge basis. But then, of course, it is also a matter of talking to key people in the Commission, to the Member States, NGOs, and industry to see what their interests are in order to form my own opinion. In addition, discussions with my colleagues are obviously very important.
Do you regularly follow some scientific magazines or journals?
Well, I am subscribed to an environmental newsletter which gives me a good overview of what is happening in terms of environmental policy. Key information is normally linked to the just mentioned proposals, or will be provided by interest groups … It is not a problem of shortage of information really but of finding the relevant information and then using it properly.
What got you interested in politics and communicating?
I was always interested in environmental protection. After my studies of biology, I thought about doing my Ph.D., but then decided that there is no lack of knowledge, but there is a lack of applying the knowledge we have. And that was more in line my character anyway.
There was also a bit of chance involved: I started with an internship in a company, then briefly worked for an industry association, then for Greenpeace International, and now, for almost twenty years, for the Greens. My heart beats for environmental protection, and I am particularly interested in waste and chemicals policies. So, yes, I am happy that my current job allows me to work on those matters.
Do you think that we have improved in this field in the last years?
Yes, I think improvements have been made. The question is whether we have improved the situation in absolute terms or whether there is this boomerang, i.e. whether the progress you make is being overcompensated by more and more consumption. And, of course, there are still a lot of things to be discussed and regulated, such as endocrine disruptors, nanomaterials, mixture effects, pharmaceuticals in the environment just to name a few in the chemicals arena. So, there are certainly a lot of problems to be addressed, and each time it is a very hard fight. But I think we are gradually moving there.
How important is science communication?
I think communication needs to be concise and relevant to the matter at hand. How scientists talk amongst themselves is often very difficult to understand for regulators. So simplifying the key messages without oversimplifying is important. Informing about what you know, but also, of course, stressing the uncertainties which is very important. So is not overstating things.
We should not create the expectation that science has all the answers. There will always be uncertainty, we should not wait until science gives us the final and definite answer. Scientists sometimes like to suggest that they could provide all the answers, and politicians love to be in the situation of full scientific knowledge. But we always live in a situation of uncertainty, where we have to make political decisions weighing the knowns and the unknowns against each other, making responsible decisions based on the best available knowledge. We should not wait until we know it all before we act.
Do you think that science communication has changed over the years?
I think more and more scientists engage in communication and feel that there are issues out there that need to be addressed. They are trying to communicate better with regulators and vice versa—each group leaving their ivory tower. I think trying to communicate better and respecting everyone’s different roles is very important and useful.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Axel Singhofen, born in Paris, France, studied biology at Albert-Ludwigs University, Freiburg, Germany. He worked for the industry association Society for the Promotion of Life-Cycle Analysis (SPOLD), Brussels, Belgium, in 1995, and became a toxics policy advisor at Greenpeace International’s European Unit, Brussels, Belgium in 1996.
Since 2001, Axel Singhofen is Advisor on Health and Environment Policy, Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA), European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium.
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