John Bensted-Smith is neither a boffin nor a diplomat, but he displays all their characteristic old-school British self-deprecation. He is in charge of a research institute with around 300 experts capable of analysing all manner of socio-economic and technological change in the European policy sphere. But he makes no claims to match their expertise. “I’m supposed to understand what the economists say to me, but I can plead ignorance for the rest,” he says.
This is, too, partly an acknowledgement that the Institute of Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) in Seville aims to secure the best academic brains to do its analytical and modelling work. “You need scientific excellence,” he insists.
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The IPTS is part of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), which is charged with providing scientific expertise to support policy development. Its main site is in Ispra, Italy, but it has specialist institutes across Europe.
While Bensted-Smith may not be one of the institute’s research elite, he epitomises the policymakers for whom it works. He joined the Commission in 1983 as a young agricultural economist, moving in 1989 to the cabinet of German commissioner Peter Schmidhuber, then responsible for the budget.
In 1993 he joined the Commission’s enlargement task force, which was charged with negotiating the accession of Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden to the European Union. Contacts made in this role earned him an invitation in 1995 to join the cabinet of Franz Fischer, Austria’s European commissioner who took the agriculture portfolio.
In 2000 Bensted-Smith moved to head the agriculture department’s cereals unit, then in 2004 its economic analysis directorate. It was here that he first worked with the IPTS. The directorate did its own economic modelling, but increasing staff mobility was making it difficult to maintain this capacity in-house. Handing the work over to an external consultant would, however, have meant an unacceptable loss of transparency.
“We hit upon the idea of using the IPTS as a partner for maintaining a degree of consistency and continuity with the use of these models,” Bensted-Smith recalls, “and that is something that goes on to this day.”
He became director of the IPTS in 2010, a move he explains in a typically off-hand way. “I was just asked,” he says. “It was simply an opportunity that came along at the time.” His role involves managing the institute and overseeing its relationship with customers in the Commission. As a JRC institute, it has core funding for a broad programme of policy support work, on top of which it has contracts from individual directorates to work on specific issues. All this requires attentive management, but there is no need to drum up new business. “We’ve got more than enough to keep us busy.”
As a self-confessed non-expert, Bensted-Smith also acts as a sounding-board for the analyses produced by IPTS researchers. “If they can get it past me, then that’s probably not a bad litmus test.”
The institute fosters an academic atmosphere, aiming to attract researchers who are already established in their fields. “Our typical profile will be 5-15 years’ post-doctoral experience,” he explains. “They will come and work for us before moving on to another university.”
Short-term contracts predominate, and this allows the institute to respond to the changing demands of policy-makers. Researchers are encouraged to publish their work for IPTS in academic journals, giving them career continuity and underpinning the institute’s credibility. “If you want to say you are objective and that the work is good, then you have to get out there and publish,” says Bensted-Smith.
But staff also have the satisfaction of seeing their work reflected in policy documents or perhaps even presented at European summits. “Academic researchers in universities don’t normally get that,” Bensted-Smith says. Meanwhile his own reward comes from overseeing a hive of intellectual activity. “It certainly makes the grey matter turn over.”
Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.