EU science advisor: 'Lots of policies are not based on evidence'

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Politicians sometimes shy away from science, but they should be clear about why they reject scientific evidence in future, the European Commission’s first chief scientific advisor told EurActiv. In an interview, she says GMOs are a good example of where policy has trumped science.


Professor Anne Glover was appointed the Commission’s first chief scientific advisor in December, charged with providing “high-level and independent scientific advice throughout all stages of policy development and delivery” to Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Glover served as chief scientific advisor for Scotland from August 2006 to December 2011, holds a chair in Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Aberdeen, is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.

Glover spoke to EurActiv’s Jeremy Fleming in her office in the Berlaymont.

How is your new role bedding down in the Commission?

It’s important for me that there is added value. Many would have felt 'What does the CSA do?', and many say do we already have scientific representation in the Commission through DG Research.

But that is a little different, because what they do is policy for science, whereas what I am doing is science for policy. There will be overlap, but the roles are quite distinct. I’m pleased that many perceive it as an opportunity for policymakers, rather than as something that they do not need to pay attention to, or are not keen on.

People understand the value of evidence in policymaking and where science and technology fits into 21st century Europe. I am surprised by the types of people who want to speak to me, such as economists. I was the CSA in Scotland and I was still finding doors to knock on by the time I left. My term lasts until the end of the current Commission at the end of 2014. It’s two and a half years away and I am working on how much I can achieve within that time and I have to be realistic.

How advanced is scientific evidence in policymaking in Europe?

I think if we have got a fresher approach to evidence at policymaking, and I think there is an impressive robust approach in the Commission. In terms of how you generate a platform of evidence, how that in turn is used to look at impact, and the whole impact assessment board. I have been very impressed by that, because I think it has to be one of the most robust processes across member states.

The challenge is what you then do at the next step, where the democratic process comes in. I look at that and how member states wish to use the evidence base, or not, and how happy they are and how confident they are in using the evidence as the main tool for decision-making, and that is a big challenge.

Why is that such a challenge?

Because in every member state, including the one I am from, lots of policies are not based on evidence, there could other economic reasons, social reasons. Take a simple issue such as harmful drugs. If you look at the evidence of how many people die taking drugs, rather than in a pastime. There are more people killed horse riding – an example recently used by [former UK government science adviser] David Nutt – rather than taking ecstasy. So do you use that evidence, and say: 'Fine, let’s ban horse riding, and legalise ecstasy?' Well, no, because there are lots of other issues and lots of other factors to consider. Such as: if you go horse riding you probably use safety head gear and go to a proper stables, whereas you hardly ever know exactly what you are taking if you take recreational drugs, so it’s a different scenario.

So we need to use evidence carefully and properly and there will be times when people wish to modify how they use the evidence, and the important thing for me is transparency. I think we could really get somewhere in Europe if when evidence is used partially, there were an obligation on people to say why they have rejected evidence.

That is a really important thing for me, because I think that you should be held to account, it’s easy in life to say no to things, it’s quite hard to say yes to things.

Can you give an example of where you feel evidence has been partially used, or not used?

It would apply to how we implement regulations around genetically modified organism (GMO) foods, because we have so much very robust evidence, and the precautionary principle is no longer relevant with GMO foods or crops.

If we look at evidence from [more than] 15 years of growing and consuming GMO foods globally, then there is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that’s pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food.

I would say there is risk in eating food and that’s what people forget. Eating food is risky, most of us forget that most plants are toxic, and it’s only because we cook them, or the quantity that we eat them in, that makes them suitable.

So you would say GMOs are safe?

The bottom line for me is that there is no more risk in GMO food than conventionally farmed food, it has nothing to do with genetic engineering, so if you decide that you want to implement the regulations in such a way that you want to prevent the use [of GMO food] then that has to be talked about, and people need to be clear why you have rejected it.

I am looking at the global challenge of how we feed the world’s population, which is increasing, how do we address sustainable fuel, such as second and third generation biofuels – indeed first generation biofuels? If we are using land to produce biofuels, we are not producing food, and that that means we have to intensify food production. It is connected to sustainable intensification.

I would argue that we use every technical possibility – not just GMOs – it requires every tool in our toolkit to deliver. It is the same with water security, if we have the possibility of producing drought-resistant crops why would we not do that if that is safe?

How can you reinforce your evidence-based approach?

I hope I have a role in that. Sometimes politicians and officials here in the Commission are not so confident around scientific issues, but that’s what I am, a scientist.

Sometimes you hear my role referred to as an ‘independent’ CSA, that’s not because I am operating entirely independent of the Commission, but because the evidence with which I work is independent, the evidence with which I work does not change according to political philosophy. And that should give people a lot of confidence, that there is a stable platform, and surely evidence does evolve but we’ve got a really secure platform on which to examine the evidence.

There has been much public mistrust around GMOs

You are right to mention the public view of things, because the public remembers in the 1980s and 1990s, when we started hearing about a lot of discomfort around the subject of GMO crops, and felt perhaps they were being manipulated by industrial interests.

But that is a generation ago, we’ve moved on and the challenges are completely different and we are not having that debate. I would be happy to reopen that debate, but just to be absolutely clear, I am not trying to promote GMO crops, I am trying to promote evidence. I would be happy for people to have that evidence and then consider the risk versus reward.

In the same way that you might consider the risk of excessive use of mobile telephones, transmission masts, and iPods. We know that there is a high risk that if you listen to iPods a lot of the time at high volume that you will be deaf by middle age. If you look at that risk, it means medical treatment and support for a generation that will not be able to contribute to the workforce and have a diminished quality of life, but people make a choice there, and they know what the risk and the rewards are.

The difference with GMO is people are not aware of the real risk and the real reward. I Think it would be good to talk about that.


Would you like to have a more formal approach to the use of evidence in policymaking, for example an evidence test applied to policy?

I would like that very much. It’s always possible if there is a will to do that [it could be introduced], but people need to be convinced of the value of it.

What would the value of that be? The value would be that where you use scientific evidence for another policy then it would be much more credible. If, for example, on GM crops you say well we wish to make the regulations even more robust and difficult to grow GM crops, but you claim that there is no evidence, but then later you try and use that scientific evidence to back up another issue. There is a reward for being transparent about evidence.

Are you against the precautionary principle being applied to evidence?

No, there is nothing wrong with the precautionary principle if it is properly implemented in the way conceived. In my mind it’s useful as a challenge function. If you have a new technology like geo-engineering, you might say it would be great if you fill the sky with clouds [through cloud-seeding] but you have to ask: 'What do I need to know to allow me to proceed?' Does that mean a moratorium on advancing issues? No, because we do not halt work in most areas.

But we need to think of imaginative ways of taking advantage of the fact that we produce the highest quality knowledge in the world in Europe, and we need the pathways to allow that knowledge deliver for Europeans and more widely for the globe.

European business needs success, in healthcare and quality of life and the environment we need to be best on the basis of the knowledge we produce, largely through public funding, whether by the individual member states or the Commission.

We should not, in producing that knowledge, somehow tie our hands behind our back in such a way that we will be so precautionary that we will wait for everyone else to use our knowledge before we use it. That would be my worry, because knowledge is an international currency, and we are amongst the slowest in taking advantage of the knowledge we create, and that cannot be right.

I would like to test opinion on that, to see is that what people want. We accept that there is always risk, it’s something that inherently we all know. Anyone who rides a bike or drives a car knows that there is a risk, and they are not going to remove risk but reduce risk. Most people feel happier driving than taking an aeroplane trip, because they think it’s riskier, but the hard facts say – per kilometre – flying is much safer.

The difference is that people feel that because they are in control of the car but not the plane, and that they can deal with it. It’s an interesting [example] in working out how you make evidence understandable to politicians. You cannot get something that is risk free.

You have talked publicly about the need to increase the role of women in science. What was your reaction to the Commission’s recent controversial video teaser for its 'Women in Science' campaign, which was accused of sexism and was pulled?

I think it got headlines for the wrong reasons. Did it appeal to me? No. But was it targeted at me? No. If I were a teenage girl it might have done, and I was genuinely upset at the reaction to that campaign. It was nothing to do with me, but I fully supported it and I support it because the Commission was genuinely trying to do something to get around the idea that science is for boys, engineering is for boys, and you are not welcome if you are a woman, that girls are unwelcome here.

And the teenage group of young women – for whom that teaser video was directed – is a very hard group of people to reach and they are at that stage in life where they are making choices, and a very large proportion do not choose science. Across the member states the Commission used focus groups asking what drew their attention. I may not like the fact that young girls think about high heels and lipstick. Now, if that’s what young girls think about then you would be foolish if you were an advertiser to ignore that.

So it might not be the world I want to live in but it is the world I am living in and I want to change it now. So I am quite happy that if that video attracts people to the website and they start looking at things then that’s fine by me, and I was genuinely disappointed, particularly by many older scientists and women my age. They had perhaps not thought about who was the focus of the campaign. It was not them, but adolescents.

I had a campaign in Scotland for science using women designing clothes that change colour. People complained then, and asked: 'Why women and clothes?' Well, because women are interested in clothes. Do young people want to see a bluestocking in an advertisement? If that were the case I could have been the role model for that.

The Commission realised there was a lot offence and withdrew it, but I was mystified and disappointed because there is a lot of good stuff on that website.

Are there similar CSA roles in the US and China?

There is no one in China but John Holdren [director of the White House’s office of science and technology policy] is probably my equivalent in the US. The fact that there is not someone equivalent in China and other countries is, I think, a lost opportunity. Because it would be rather interesting if we had a network of chief scientists. The idea is to find people who have great credibility and a network with the science community and politicians in their own country. They have the opportunity of discussing evidence amongst scientists, of identifying where there might be blockages or challenges in particular countries, thinking about being imaginative about that evidence, and then to go back to politicians and giving them – I think – a much better sense of security about using the evidence.

Would you consider trying to implement a sort of network of CSAs in Europe?

I am speaking to member states at the moment at the level of ministries, and it’s a slow process, to try and get them to nominate someone they would feel happy with to start such a network. Because once I have got that network, they will have some way of influencing me, and I will have a way of disseminating information back to member states.

I believe that can only be useful to MEPs and ministers, because they would come here with a scientific briefing taking account of issues within all the member states. We would be ahead of the game if Europe organised itself like that.

What can the research at CERN in Switzerland achieve, is the Higgs Boson particle, if provable, a game changer for science?

It has already produced a vast quantity of data, and that led to the World Wide Web. If you think how important that has been in all our lives, and that was what looking for this elusive particle led to. What CERN does is three things: science and knowledge, translation – supporting business and industry – and education. They do these in equal measure, and they have these three in mind.

They have also produced PET scans [positron emission tomography scans]. Positrons are antimatter so this is a development that came out of CERN, using antimatter to be able non-invasively to scan the body and provide diagnosis and treatment for a variety of issues. Retinal imaging eye-scanning also comes from CERN.

Maybe we are not good at saying 'PET scanning, brought to you by CERN!'. Maybe we are not good at doing this and people think it is just a big budget project for some people to find a Higgs Boson.

The Higgs Boson (HB) will help us to understand the fundamental nature of matter. So what? Well the 'so what' is quite interesting, because this table [Glover points to a table] is 99.9% nothing. But I’m hitting it [Glover taps the table]. It’s because we do not understand the very little matter in the table. We cannot fully explain it, and the HB will help us understand what gives things mass.

If we wanted to transport it from here to Rome, it would require energy. But if we understand the fundamental nature of matter, it may be possible – and I am straying a bit into science fiction here – It may be possible to take that from a 30 kilogram table into one gram.