A small row has broken out surrounding the role of the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor.
The fuss started last week, with the publication of an open letter from nine green NGOs to the incoming EC president, Jean-Claude Juncker, demanding the position of Chief Scientific Advisor should be scrapped. The very idea of the Chief Scientific Advisor, they argue, is “fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person.” Although Professor Anne Glover, the first and current Chief Scientific Advisor, has some media profile, details of the actual advice she gives are less clear.
The response of the scientific community was speedy and strong, especially in Glover’s native UK, which also has one of the more developed science advice systems, and lobbied strongly for the European post to be established. A letter from medical research charities commended Glover’s work to promote scientific issues and evidence in policymaking. Yet another letter published via Sense About Science dubbed calls to scrap the role of the Chief Scientific Advisor as an attempt to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice, further suggesting the NGOs were led by their objection to GMOs. American academic Roger Pielke Jr offered similar analysis, comparing the NGOs’ letter to Nixon sacking science advisers for their opposition to the Vietnam War: “Don’t like the science advice you are getting? Then fire your science adviser. Who do the NGOs think should be advising the commission’s president? Themselves of course.”
Speaking on the BBC Today Programme on Saturday, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, Doug Parr argued a necessary transparency is not written into the European system “it’s a matter of getting that rigour back into the process. I quite understand why scientists would be upset by the idea that this post might be abolished, but it’s not living up to the standards we might have if we want science as a bulwark against corporate lobbying.” Dr Parr also dismissed the issue of Glover’s attitude to GM crops as irrelevant: “it’s to do with the processes and rigour which science is used at the European level.”
Professor James Wilsdon – a signatory of the Sense About Science letter and editor of Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall – suggests the NGOs are “shooting themselves in the foot by objecting to the Chief Scientific Advisor. There are many in the European Commission who would prefer to continue operating without such a role to call them to account. Glover has attracted flak because she is, unlike many in Brussels policy-making, a visible and accountable part of the system.” Counter to NGOs’ concerns over centralising such a diverse role, Wilsdon argues “This is a misreading of the role of a single Chief Scientific Advisor, who acts to convene and gather expertise. There is value in this being done by an individual who can work at speed and can build the necessary institutional relationships.” Wilsdon also agrees, however, that the Chief Scientific Advisor role is far from perfect: “Of course the office could be strengthened, made more transparent, but it’s only been in operation for two and a half years. It will evolve.”
It is perhaps odd this debate has become so polarised. Both sides seem to agree opacity and corruption in policy making is the key problem, and that there is space to improve. The contested nature of GMO may offer some explanation. Just as Sense About Science et al imply this is the basis for the NGOs complaint, a desire to promote GM may well explain some of the vehement response. Similarly, just as Glover is an odd and all-too-easy target, we might critique the motivations and ease of a simple bit of green-bashing.
At best the fuss draws some more attention to the issue of scientific advice in Europe. Still, everyone involved might be better off encouraging public debate over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership instead.
Editor’s note: The International Council for Science, sponsor of Road to Paris, is one of the co-organizers of an international meeting of science advisors to governments in Auckland, New Zealand in August. Anne Glover is a speaker at this meeting.