EU chief scientist tipped for 'TV role'

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Leading figures in European science policymaking are at odds over whether the proposed Chief Scientific Advisor should be an in-house advisor to the president of the EU executive, or an independent frontman for science.

John Wood, who chairs the European Research Area Board (ERAB) – which proposed the creation of a Chief Scientific Advisor – sees the role as a public advocate on scientific issues. 

He says the advisor should be independent-minded and feel free to give evidence-based advice. It should be a person who can go on television during times of crisis, such as a pandemic, and help communicate on scientific matters in a way that engages the public and allays fears. 

"The Chief Scientist for Europe should be someone who speaks for science – someone who goes on TV during a crisis," he said. 

This follows the model of UK scientific advisors, who have been known to lock horns with government agencies on matters of science policy. The US takes a similar approach, with President Barack Obama appointing a panel of high-calibre advisors from a range of disciplines. The head of the team is based in the US president's executive office. 

Cultural differences over definition of job 

However, there appears to be a major gulf between this Anglo-Saxon model and what might be envisaged by Brussels. High-level science policymakers in the EU institutions view the role less as an independent voice of science, and more as a scientifically-savvy confidante of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. 

Portuguese MEP Maria da Graça Carvalho, formerly an advisor on scientific and innovation issues to Barroso, said the president was putting knowledge at the centre of the EU's agenda and the Chief Scientific Advisor would play a role in this. 

She compared the proposed role of a scientific advisor with that of a political advisor, saying the new position would be given to someone who can offer evidence-based policies on scientific issues ranging from health to climate change. 

Announcing his plan to create the new position, Barroso himself said the advisor would have the power "to deliver proactive, scientific advice throughout all stages of policy development and delivery". 

Whether this turns out to be closer to Carvalho's expectations or Wood's definition remains to be seen. 

Wood, who has rubbished reports in the UK press linking him to the role, said the job would be less attractive to top scientists if it were merely a backroom policy position rather than a high-profile advocacy role. 

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