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The European Commission has abolished the post of chief scientific adviser
Ben Fagan-Watson

Ben Fagan-Watson

The new European Commission under the presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker confirmed earlier this month that it will not be renewing the post of EU chief scientific adviser (CSA), until recently held by Professor Anne Glover – a Scottish biologist and professor of molecular biology and cell biology at the University of Aberdeen, who was previously a scientific adviser in Scotland (2006-2011).

It is not clear what will happen now with independent scientific advice to the president and the rest of the Commission. Glover’s position disappeared when the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA) was replaced by the new European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), which has no role for a chief scientific adviser. Juncker hasn’t decided what to do with scientific advice yet, but he has asked Carlos Moedas, the incoming commissioner for science, research and innovation, to ‘make sure that Commission proposals and activities are based on sound scientific evidence’ as one of six policy priorities.

Anne Glover

In her role, Professor Glover emphasised the need for science policy to be firmly based on evidence. She also spoke of the need to improve science communication to win the confidence of the public and has championed gender equality in European science. There has been an outcry from some commentators, about the termination of the post, with Sense About Science co-ordinating a letter from 40 organisations and 773 individuals who said that they ‘cannot stress strongly enough our objection to any attempt to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice received at the highest level of the European Commission’. The final decision was made 10 days after the Juncker Commission assumed power. Professor James Wilsdon noted that ‘the European Commission chose the evening before the Rosetta landing [of the European Space Agency Philae probe on a comet] to confirm quietly that its most senior scientific role, that of chief scientific adviser (CSA) to its president, is being scrapped’.

There is a genuine debate about whether chief scientific advisers are a good idea. The original call for the European CSA post to be scrapped was led by Greenpeace, Corporate Europe Observatory and other NGOs. They argued: ‘We are aware that business lobbies urge you to continue with the practice established by Mr Barroso and even to strengthen the chief adviser’s formal role in policy making. We, by contrast, appeal to you to scrap this position. The post of chief scientific adviser is fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration… the role of chief scientific adviser has been unaccountable, intransparent and controversial. While the current CSA and her opinions were very present in the media, the nature of her advice to the president of the European Commission remains unknown. We have not been able to obtain any information on what the commission president has requested advice on, let alone what advice has been given.’ It probably didn’t help that Professor Glover has repeatedly argued that her advice to the European Commission should be ‘not transparent’ in an attempt to remain above politics.

The NGOs also particularly objected to her interventions on genetically modified crops and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, stating: ‘To the media, the current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety whereas this claim is contradicted by an international statement of scientists (currently 297 signatories) saying that it “misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue”.’

It is worth reflecting on the UK experience. Government chief scientific advisers have been in place since the 1960s, but in 2011 the Labour government decided that every individual government department should be given its own departmental CSA. An influential report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said the UK system ‘has much to commend it and CSAs play a crucial role in offering science and engineering advice and evidence to inform government policy’. The main problem it highlighted was where departmental CSAs did not have sufficient access or influence over policymaking – for example, the Home Office CSA who first heard about ID cards on Radio 4’s Today, or the former CSA to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Transport who described how, when off-shore wind policy was being developed, he lacked access to decision makers and so was not able to offer engineering advice to the relevant discussions. By contrast, the NGOs pushing for the termination of the European CSA post said that ‘In the UK, for example, several CSAs have come under fire for issuing apparently partial advice too closely aligned to specific commercial and political interests.’

So what is the best way forward? Should there be a private source of scientific advice to the Commission in the form of an appointed adviser – what US academic Roger Pielke Jr has called the ‘honest broker’ – who can champion science and evidence? Greenpeace and others have argued that ‘Vested interests have long realised that the more you concentrate scientific advice into the hands of one person, the easier it is to control. Politicians value an apparently authoritative voice for garnering support for particular policies.’ Does a chief scientific adviser concentrate too much power in one person’s hands? Are there better mechanisms that can be used to collate research and evidence for policymakers? Tweet @BW_Green and @PSI_London to let us know your thoughts.

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