Incoming European Commission President scraps Chief Scientific Adviser role

By Grant Jacobs 19/11/2014 3


Last week European science reveled in landing a spacecraft on a comet, a triumph reported quietly in New Zealand.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield—who famously performed Bowie’s Space Oddity on the International Space Station—alluded to the long arc of scientific progress on Facebook, writing “Last night I held in my hands original works of Galileo & Newton. Today we landed on a comet beyond Mars. Incredible.”

What would Galileo have thought of flinging a craft into space, it journeying for a decade to detach a landing unit onto an object he saw streaking across the view through telescopes of his day, and the lander reporting back with images to be viewed by anyone? Never mind tweeted to the world at large.

Unreported[1] by the New Zealand media, as far as I know, was that while Philae was landing on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the incoming head of the European Commission (EC), Jean-Claude Juncker, dropped the position of European Union Chief Scientific Adviser. For non-scientists this might seem trivial by comparison, but potentially it has major implications for policy development in the European Union (EU). This, in turn, may affect trading partners such as ourselves.

Reports on this development can be found in the English and European media, including at the Guardianthe Telegraph and the BBC. Some commentary from scientists can be found at the British Science Media Centre and a number of science-related publications, including Nature, Science and NewScientist. There are many more: I’ve listed some additional opinion pieces in the Footnotes.[2] There is no commentary from our own Chief Science Advisor at the time of writing.

(Professor Anne Glover, the incumbent EU Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA), has objected to the Telegraph article writing to the journalist on twitter that “your article is simply wrong, an apology would be good”. This appears to have been an objection to claiming she had been sacked,[3] which could be read as implying she had acted incorrectly in her position. A later (Nov. 15) tweet by the journalist seems to confirm this.[3a])

I originally heard of the news from fellow sciblogger Victoria Metcalf and replied thinking it perhaps boded ill that no replacement system was in place and also wondering how sincere Greenpeace and company’s intentions were. My tweet tagged Greenpeace, who a few minutes later sent in response a link to an opinion piece by Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK. (Note the objections raised in the commentary to this piece.) Parr’s article linked to “an initial letter[4] sent by Greenpeace and eight other NGOs to the incoming head of the European Commission begging for the removal of the EU Chief Scientific Adviser position.

My initial response was to think that the article and letter were “self-serving & suggests GP [Greenpeace] doesn’t like summaries it can’t bring pressure to”.

If I could be honest, my second thought was a single word: petulant.

I was left thinking of a spoil child—a bit of a sneaky bully at that—who unable to get their way, and jealous that someone else was able to offer advice that they didn’t like, sought to try change things to suit themselves.

There are other services within the EC that allow groups to present their views to the EU, and it isn’t the role of the Chief Scientific Advisor to lobby on behalf of others. (Her call is to evidence, not interest groups’ thoughts.)

Sound evidence is important to good governance.

Looked at one way, sound evidence may be the most democratic thing we have. It speaks for everyone, whatever their views.

You might take policies not suggested by the evidence is other factors come into play, but this ought to be done with an understanding and appreciation of what evidence does show.

Groups of all kinds—including NGOs like Greenpeace—push views that are aligned with their ideology. Presented properly, evidence tries to stand independent of ideological notions. I’m not saying that’s entirely possible, or easy, but at least it tries to. Interest groups, on the other hand, almost invariably put their ideology above evidence and are inclined to “find” evidence that supports their ideology, wielding evidence the wrong way – using it to shore up a pre-existing position rather than to determine what is known and derive positions from that.

One value of CSA positions are that they try to speak for the evidence independent of the values of the interest groups.

The letters by the NGOs seem to misunderstand (or, potentially, misrepresent) this point, expressing concern CSA positions might overly influence policy, but these positions are about what evidence shows, not policy as such.

Juncker is quotes in saying he “believes in independent scientific advice”, but it would have been much more convincing if the new system were first proposed—to open discussion—prior to disestablishing the existing structure. In the absence of any word on this, you can’t help feel doubtful. The letters to him from Greenpeace and company similarly do not offer alternatives, just make poorly veiled accusations and ‘what ifs’ (which have the implication that they want something that suits them).

Below I’ve given a breakdown of the development, best as I can on limited time, with some closing thoughts drawn from a presentation that Anne Glover gave at the Science Advice for Governments meeting held at Auckland earlier this year. More on this later, but you can view her presentation on-line here –

The news appears to have been broken by an email from Prof. Glover,

The European Commission confirmed to me yesterday that all decisions on the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA) were repealed and so the function of Chief Scientific Adviser has ceased to exist. The new European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC) which “replaces” BEPA does not comprise a function “Chief Scientific Adviser”.

It is not up to me to comment on this decision, but I would like to express that I am proud of what this office has achieved in less than 3 years with very few resources. This has only been possible thanks to your continued support throughout this time and the hard work of the fantastic members of my team who will now seek new opportunities.

I am going to leave the Commission at the end of January and look forward to meet you again in the future.

With all best wishes

Anne

Several sources report that Juncker said the Chief Scientific Advisor position would be retained prior to his appointment, such as referred to in this letter by the PRRI. Reports widely attribute Juncker’s changed position to a push from Greenpeace, along with other NGOs, to remove the position. (For the sake of simplicity I will refer to Greenpeace rather than the coalition of NGOs.)

This does not specifically remove Glover’s post, but sets up a new advisory core where the position Chief Scientific Advisor post no longer exists. It does not dismiss the person, but removes the post.

Initial reports pointed to Glover’s views on genetic modification as being a key issue for Greenpeace, as the laid out in the initial letter: “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 …”

Greenpeace has since tried to backtrack on this, claiming this was a mistake. However, you can’t really undo what was said and subsequent ‘clarifications’ don’t appear very convincing (to be polite).

Greenpeace’s initial letter objects to “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.”

You even level a similar concern with the President’s power to alter the infrastructure, such as Greenpeace is calling for, nominally undermining infrastructure and policy processes set up by predecessors. A point is the claim could probably be made of anyone in a high position—including senior members of Greenpeace—as it’s the nature of hierarchical systems. (You might even argue Greenpeace asked for an individual in a position of power to act in the way that they object to, with the position struck out by that individual, not a process seeking to reflect the interests of European citizens.)

Furthermore this characterisation misrepresents the role, which is directed to evidence, not politics. As slide 32 of Anne Glover’s talk in Auckland highlights, “The CSA has a purely advisory function and no role in defining Commission policies.” Furthermore, it goes one to say “Therefore, her views do not necessarily represent the views of the Commission.” – point being, that the Commission is ultimately free to disregard her views should it wish to.)

A later letter continues the encouragement to remove the CSA role in similar vein, but avoiding the GM issue.

(Doug Parr has indicated that this and the earlier letter represent the full correspondence from Greenpeace and company to Juncker encouraging the removal of the CSA role.)

One thing not referred to in these letters is that Glover apparently  invited several NGOs to discuss “how the use of scientific evidence by the Commission could be improved” including Greenpeace, the Pesticide Action Network and Health & Environment Alliance, all signatories to both of the letters to Juncker urging the removal of the CSA position. (See slide 85 of her presentation at Auckland.)

I have searched for, but have not been able to find a summary or transcript of this meeting. It would be interesting to see if this meeting would shed light on current developments.

A full deconstruction of these letters would be time-consuming and tedious. Suffice to say that there are several statements that to me don’t stack up. In particular the letters suggest a misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the role of the CSA. I’ll limit myself to just one example. The second letter refers to a proposed potential for the CSA to influence policy formation. Further in the piece it writes “The current CSA has stated that her advice should remain “not transparent” and immune from public scrutiny (1), and this is of concern to us.” To my reading this misrepresents her: she was quoted as saying “has said that her opinions to the European Commission should remain independent from politics and therefore “not transparent” and immune from public scrutiny.” (My emphasis added.) The important part has been left out: that her role should be independent from politics. This is mirrored in her statement on slide 99 of her talk at Auckland that she was constantly the target of lobbying “under the wrong assumption that this would influence my advice and that I have much more influence than I have in reality.” (To my reading she has subsequently said her position should be transparent.)

The EU has other structures that serve as science advisories, such as the Joint Research Centre. (Contrary to what the NGO letters imply, she drew on contacts there [page 6 of Select Committee hearing].) Perhaps there are better structures, but the argument offered by Greenpeace and company isn’t it – not only does their criticism seem unsound, they in fact make no suggestions all what might be better despite making vague statements that something else might be better. (There can be read an implication that they should be a source of scientific advice.)

Glover attended the Science Advice for Governments meeting held in Auckland, New Zealand. Slides of her presentation, 1000 days in the life of a Chief Scientific Advisor, are available on-line. A transcript of her presentation is below the slides. In it she lays out her roles and the challenges she faced.

Glovers “Lessons learnt”, from slide 98 onwards, are particularly worth reading.

Footnotes

It seems Glover is to retain her position until January, but has been frozen out from doing anything. Apparently the CSA website has been taken down (although an archive of it appears to exist; click on the arrows in the boxed items at the bottom of the page for more details), and she is disbarred from attending a meeting of science advisors that she set up.

Those familiar with GMO literature will see slide 65 of Glover’s talk notes a call for her resignation from Gilles-Eric Séralini, senior author of a widely discredited study, and French politician Corinne LePage prior to the letters this article refers to. Séralini in particular is seen as a hero by some opposing GMOs despite widespread objections from the scientific community about his work and how he presented it to the public. I’ve previously written about the republication of the retracted study and the lack of peer review of this.

For one meta study of GMOs, see Klümper and Qaim, A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111629). They conclude, “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.”

Page 20 of the Select Committee Inquiry (PDF file) may interest some:

… that is a good example of where you cannot really invoke the precautionary principle, because we have the evidence. People might say, “Yes, but there might be some other evidence that we do not have now but we could have in the future”. It is not a sustainable way of looking at evidence. People use it because it is a very emotive principle. It tends to flag up in other people’s minds the following: “If one of my colleagues is invoking the precautionary principle, I should be worried about it”. It is not being used properly. I think it would be helpful to everyone concerned if we could do almost what your question suggests, which would be to set up a simple tick-box process: if “yes” go here, if “no” go there. If you carry on, you can then invoke it. But if you go down some other channel, you do not necessarily invoke the precautionary principle. You do something else.

Q11 Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I want to be clear that the problem that you are identifying is the same one that I am, which is that “risk” and “hazard” are increasingly used to say the same thing. You can almost always point to hazards whatever you are doing, even when crossing the road, but actually what you really need to do is risk.

1. The Science Media Centre did report it in their weekly ‘Heads up’ report, there is a follow-up report on their site.

2. Additional commentaries can be found in the articles below (the dates will be local, these articles are from the northern hemisphere):

3. Suggested to me by Peter Griffin, later seen to be suggested by others. This is what experienced journalists are good for and scientists less so, I guess…

3a. Another claim in the Telegraph piece that has received questioning is the claim the lobbying for the removal of the CSA position included from France. The journalist linked this to Ségolène Royal.

4. I feel there is some irony in the forum this letter is hosted – ‘Corporate Europe Observatory: exposing the power of corporate lobbying in the EU’. Greenpeace and it’s allies in this letter are lobby groups in the process of lobbying…


Other articles on Code for life:

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

XMRV prompts media thought: ask for the ’state of play’

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one | Code for Life

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”


3 Responses to “Incoming European Commission President scraps Chief Scientific Adviser role”

  • I‘ve belatedly found that Steven Novella has also written on this:

    http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/politics-vs-science/

    (17th Nov. I’ve added a comment, yet to be approved at the time of writing.)

    The Corporate Europe Observatory (whose by-line ‘exposing the power of corporate lobbying in the EU’ I find quite ironic as, to me, their article exposes the power of their lobbying) has written regards “how to organise independent scientific advice” that they have “sent a list of principles to the Commission on how to, in our opinion, try to best do this”

    http://corporateeurope.org/power-lobbies/2014/11/how-improve-scientific-advice-european-commission

    Their list doesn’t actually show how the EC might better organise independent scientific advice and, in my opinion, is again trying to play word games to enable pushing their opinion ahead of evidence.

    They seem to pretty much directly say that experts whose advice they don’t like should be silenced:

    “Experts with interests conflicting with the public interest in the advice process at stake should remain available as hearing experts but should not actively shape the advice or opinion.”

    (By claiming themselves to be acting in the public interest they can ask to exclude those whose views they don’t like. This clearly is playing games, very unsound ones. It also is indirectly slighting the CSA office, implying that it’s not in the public interest. While they understandably see themselves as champions of public interest (whether they are or not), but need to better recognise that only works if their advice/evidence is sound. This actually argues for strengthening the CSA position when it’s thought through, and distancing of lobby groups such as their own. There’s a lot else wrong in what they’ve offered, but that would take an entire article to put right…)

  • Those looking for the EU Chief Scientist twitter account, @EU_ScienceChief, it’s been deleted. Anne Glover now has a personal account for her EU work, @AnneGlover_EU

    (I can’t help noting that this also has the unfortunate effect of deleting all the tweets she made as Chief Scientist, removing the public record of these – not implying conspiracy, just thinking this unfortunate & perhaps in some ways inappropriate.)