Europe needs independent scientific input

The new European Commission President is reconsidering how he receives scientific advice.

The position of Chief Scientific Adviser for the European Commission held by Anne Glover has been scrapped, but Europe needs independent scientific advice

It appears the European Commission and its new President Jean-Claude Juncker may do without independent advice on scientific matters. Juncker has decided, thus far, not to extend the role of chief scientific adviser (CSA).

The position was created by Juncker’s predecessor José Manuel Barroso in 2012. The first person to hold the position, cell biologist Anne Glover, has championed the importance of basing policies on scientific evidence and set up a science and technology advisory council (STAC) to the President in January 2013 — this group has been disbanded along with the CSA.

A CSA for Scotland between 2006 and 2011, Glover’s record has not been without incident. In the summer, a letter from nine non-government organisations (NGOs) to Juncker, who was then President-Elect, called for Glover’s position to be scrapped. According to the group of NGOs, including Greenpeace, the role of CSA placed too much power in one person’s hands and lacked accountability. More specifically, the letter drew attention to Glover’s public statements that there is no scientific basis for concerns about genetically modified crops.

More than 50 organisations, including the campaign group Sense About Science, the charitable foundation the Wellcome Trust and the UK Association of Medical Research Charities, contributed to or supported letters to Juncker in defence of the role.

“It is exactly in these polarising debates that a [CSA] is necessary to give politicians a balanced, evidence-based view,” the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s chief scientist Jayne Lawrence said at the time. Lawrence has described the loss of the CSA role as deeply disappointing.

It is to be hoped that the European Science Advisers Forum (ESAF) — a brainchild of Glover, convened for the first time in June 2014 in Copenhagen — continues to take forward discussions around how policymaking can be better informed by evidence.

Glover has spoken out about the evidence-gathering machinery of the EU: how an evidence base is often built to support intended policy directions (sometimes referred to as policy-based evidence-making) rather than ensuring that policy decisions are informed by scientific consensus. Such sentiments are not revolutionary, but raise the question as to why Juncker would not seek to appoint a new CSA to advise the commission on scientific matters. Is it to avoid a situation in which independent advice does not chime with the political desiderata of the establishment?

It was a sound move of Barroso to have created the post. We believe it ought to be reinstated, or, if the new European Commission President happens to believe that one person should not hold so much sway, a scientific advisory function needs to be made to work in a more collegiate way, like the former STAC.

It should be strengthened, independent and heeded.

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Citation
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 6/13 December 2014, Vol 293, No 7839/40;293(7839/40):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2014.20067274