One year ago, I was honoured to be attending at the Award Ceremony for the first Empress Theophano Prize, and to receive it on behalf of President von der Leyer for the Erasmus programme.
Erasmus symbolises and testifies to the wealth of cultural influences, mobility and mutual understanding among young Europeans. The principles that have helped shape Europe as we know it today and which define our European way of life. It was a supreme honour and recognition for the most successful European programme in over 30 years. And there was certainly no better start to the European journey of the Theophano Prize, which seeks to symbolise the syzygy of the East and the West of a Europe that unites.
Today, it is equally a great pleasure for me to return to my home city, my beloved Thessaloniki, to open the Round Table Discussion on the very timely topic of “Securing Future Wellbeing Through Science”, in the presence of two distinguished scientists, Dr Uğur Şahin and Dr Özlem Türeci, this year’s laureates most deserving.
Two scientists who set a tangible example to follow, owing to their hard, unrelenting efforts to help solve an unprecedented health crisis.
I think it no accident that the first two Theophano Prizes were given to education and to science. That these sectors were selected last year and this year says a lot about this Prize.
Science in particular is the one that intervenes decisively and resolutely in critical situations, improves people’s lives, contributes to society and constitutes a force for Good.
Science is the crown of Politics in times of crisis.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Those of us who have taken it upon ourselves to serve society by formulating public policy have no better weapon than science to overcome the complex challenges of our time.
Demographics, public health, climate change, digital transition: never before in our societies have we sought scientific knowledge so much and so intensely.
President von der Leyen made this clear in her State of the Union address to the European Parliament on September 15th, saying, pointedly: “Whenever we don’t believe our own eyes, we only have to follow the science”.
This is no doubt true of the challenges of climate change and the huge, manifold and compounding effects that algorithms will bring to our lives. But if there is one area that lends itself to multiple relevant lessons, it is certainly the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is these experiences that I would like to share with you today.
Let us remember how it all started in the second tragic half of 2020.
In the early stages of the pandemic, long before the vaccine came into our lives, we policymakers – both on the European and national level – had to comprehend and anticipate how the disease was spreading and how the virus could be contained.
It was the time for infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists. We opened the doors of government buildings to those who helped detect the pathways of infection, monitor the virus and identify how the virus spreads.
It was also the time for researchers, who assessed and developed tests to detect the disease. And, of course, for the pioneers who tamed the virus through scientific research into vaccines.
But it became immediately clear that these disciplines too cannot work alone to provide all the answers that policymakers need.
It was the social scientists who helped us better understand when and why people change their behaviour and accept protective measures against COVID, whether it be wearing a facemask, adhering to restrictions, or vaccination itself.
It was economists who played an important part in understanding the economic consequences of the pandemic, allowing governments to anticipate and address problems in the supply chain and to assess the financial needs for recovery after the pandemic. And it was engineers who linked vaccine research to vaccine production lines.
Despite this support, we have unfortunately been confronted with populist, anti-scientific challenges, disinformation campaigns, and the dissemination of fake news.
And if there is one lesson we should take away as a legacy from this health crisis, it is that if we can return to a normal life today, it is not due to legislation or a regulatory decision that is applied blindly from the top down – but to the rapid development of effective and innovative vaccines as well as to the dedication of scientific researchers like Dr Şahin and Dr Türeci, and many other lateral disciplines and specialisations, thanks to which we can finally see a way out of the crisis.
So, it is science that is making the post-COVID world normal and functional again.
And, as it is science that helps policymakers, it follows that science needs the full and heartfelt support of policymakers.
This is exactly what the European Union is doing. Last summer we believed in science and despite the dozens of proposals we received from companies at a time when there were more questions than answers on vaccine development, we took the responsibility to select seven companies and pre-purchase vaccines from them because we believed in science. And six of these seven companies did not disappoint us.
We succeeded. Europe believed and succeeded.
First, through funding.
The European Commission makes available significant financial resources for research. For example, in recent years we have supported BioNTech and other leading drug producers with grants and loans for research and innovation.
We have the largest research and innovation funding programme in the world – Horizon Europe, with a budget of almost €96 billion – with a comprehensive research programme dedicated to research and innovation in the health sector.
But funding is only one aspect of how we support scientists.
We also need actions that promote the exchange of scientific knowledge and its use in policymaking.
This is what the European Research Area does, through the promotion of free exchange of knowledge and scientists, and through improved coordination of support for scientific research across the EU.
The European Union is in a unique and advantageous position to create spaces of cooperation, co-creation and shared values.
These are precisely the foundations on which we are building the European Health Union, with a new European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA).
But also with strengthened powers for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Medicines Agency.
This new, integrated institutional architecture will facilitate and fortify the seamless flow of exchange and cooperation between science and policy in matters of health.
Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,
The day after is already here and our eyes are on the next generation of scientists.
A promising new generation that knows that science is not just an option – but an integral part of the solution.
According to the latest Eurobarometer, 2 out of 3 Europeans support the need for scientists to intervene in policy debates to ensure that political decisions take into account scientific evidence.
It is therefore our duty to actively promote dialogue between science and policy.
We must also foster an interest in science and knowledge from the earliest stages of human life. Schools and universities play a key role in the education and training of young scientists.
We will achieve this by creating a European Education Area by 2025, and through specific initiatives such as the Researchers in Schools programme, which will bring science dynamically into schools.
This is why we put the full development of the European Universities Initiative at the core of the new European Skills Agenda adopted in June 2020, with a special focus on supporting scientists.
It also requires even closer cooperation with research institutions, businesses and industry, as well as with national and regional authorities. In the coming years, as part of the European Research Area, we have committed to launching Europe-wide campaigns to turn universities into centres of knowledge exchange and cooperation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The recipe for success boils down to the development of a robust, motivated and skilled scientific workforce, with stable political support and adequate funding.
This has proved effective in the fight against COVID-19. But defeating COVID-19 was not and is not an end in itself.
What we ought to do now is try to replicate this successful approach to address the many other current and impending societal challenges in health.
We are committed to a science that serves a Europe which protects its populations, and particularly the most vulnerable. But also to a science that provides opportunities to future generations of scientists.
Strong cooperation between science and policymaking is not only vital but a one-way street.
Allow me to conclude this address with the warmest and most sincere praise to Dr Uğur Şahin and Dr Özlem Türeci for the immense and invaluable contribution of Science to Humanity.