EU twisting facts to fit political agenda, chief scientist says

Anne Glover speaking at the Friends of Europe - EU 2050: Europe's Tech Revolution (Photo: Flickr: OB-Pic 043)
Anne Glover speaking at the Friends of Europe - EU 2050: Europe's Tech Revolution. [OB-Pic 043/Flickr]

A big challenge for the next European Commission will be to disconnect its evidence gathering processes from the “political imperative” that’s driving policy proposals, according to Anne Glover, the EU’s chief scientific advisor.

Speaking before the EU elections last week, Glover reflected upon her role, which was introduced by the outgoing President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso.

Glover was appointed in December 2011 to provide the President of the EU Executive with first-class independent scientific advice. A trained biologist who holds a chair in Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Aberdeen, she previously served a as chief scientific advisor for Scotland (2006-2011).

More than two years into her job, she seems to have learned a great deal about the internal working of the EU’s flagship institution.

And her assessment of what goes on inside the Commission’s walls is not rosy.

Commissioners with ‘crazy ideas’

“When I spoke to president Barroso about taking up this role, I said to him that for me it would only be attractive if I was regarded as an independent chief scientific advisor,” Glover told a briefing organised on 21 May by Eurochambres, the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

“What I said to him was that, for me to have any value or credibility, I need to focus on evidence and not on political considerations,” she recalled.

Describing her role at the Commission, Glover said she enjoyed considerable freedom in providing scientific advice to Barroso. Although her opinions remain confidential, she has made widely-publicised comments on subjects as diverse – and controversial – as climate change, GMOs or shale gas.

But it appears she also found it difficult to disentangle the Commission’s evidence gathering processes from what she calls the “political imperative” that’s behind them. Illustrating her point, she used a fictitious example:

“Let’s imagine a Commissioner over the weekend thinks, ‘Let’s ban the use of credit cards in the EU because credit cards lead to personal debt’. So that commissioner will come in on Monday morning and say to his or her Director General, ‘Find me the evidence that demonstrates that this is the case.’”

The Commissioner’s staff might resist the idea but in the end, she says, “they will do exactly what they’re asked” and “find the evidence” to show that credit card use leads to personal debt, even though this may not be the case in reality.

“So you can see where this is going,” Glover said: “You’re building up an evidence base which is not really the best.”

Biased evidence

To back its policy proposals, the Commission often outsources the evidence-gathering part of the job to external consulting firms, which provide ‘impact assessment studies’ or ‘research’ that are often branded as ‘independent’.

However, Glover says such consultancies have little incentive to produce evidence that contradicts the Commission’s political agenda.

“If they want repeat business, [they] are not going to go out and find the evidence to show that this is a crazy idea,” she says.

To be fair, the Commission is not alone in trying to distort facts, Glover said. The same goes for the other two EU institutions – the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers, which represents the 28 EU member states.

“What happens at the moment – whether it’s in Commission, Parliament or Council – is that time and time again, if people don’t like what’s being proposed, what they say is that there is something wrong with the evidence. So everybody blames the evidence and nobody is honest about the fact that in many cases, understanding the evidence is the best possible platform to make the logical extension into policy. But they don’t like it so they say ‘We need more evidence’. And of course scientists can always produce more evidence.”

Contested impact assessments

There are countless examples of topics where EU policymakers have bickered over the evidence, including on the safety of nanoparticles, the impact of biofuel crops over food prices or chemical substances with hormone-disrupting effects.

In fact, the battle over evidence extends far beyond the EU institutions and spills over to the private sector and non-governmental groups trying to influence policy, sometimes with the backing of EU member countries.

Perhaps the most politicised to date was the REACH regulation on chemicals, which gave rise to one of the most epic lobbying battles in the EU's history, generating dozens of impact assessment studies before it was eventually adopted in 2006.

At one point, EU officials arranged a meeting to try and make sense of 36 different impact assessment studies on REACH, most of them focusing on the legislation’s projected disastrous cost on businesses. The Commission’s own initial impact study, meanwhile, had sought to highlight the benefits of REACH to health and the environment. A final impact study ended up broadly confirming the Commission’s original assessment.

Proposals for next Commission

To Glover, such drawn-out battles over the evidence on which policy decisions are grounded should become a thing of the past.

“What I am going to propose for the next President of the European Commission is to try and develop a new system of evidence gathering within the Commission that entirely disconnects evidence gathering with the political imperative,” Glover said.

According to Glover, a simple solution would be to create a special department at the Commission whose role would be to assess policy proposals against the evidence – “a central service which would be the evidence portal,” she says.

The service would take "questions" submitted to it by the Commission directorates and bring together the evidence to substantiate the issue at hand. Once formulated, the evidence base would be sent back to the policymakers who can then look at policy options based on the analysis.

And if the policymakers choose to adopt a policy that goes against the evidence, that’s OK, Glover says because other considerations – social, economic, ethical, philosophical – might be more important. “And I think that’s quite justifiable,” she says.

Crucially, Glover says transparency in the evidence-gathering process would be key, so that every stakeholder - whether a citizen, a business, a politician, a scientist – can look at the reasoning that’s behind policy proposals. "And that is all doable, it is not a fantasy. It would be quite easy to achieve," she says.

The Commission does have an impact assessment board, launched after the adoption of the contested REACH regulation, which brings together the bosses of all the main Commission directorates.

But Glover says its composition should be revised. “We should look at impact assessment in the Commission and try and make that more transparent and easier to implement,” she said.

“At the moment there is no scientist on the impact assessment board. I think there is an opportunity there.”

  • 27 May: European heads of states discuss election results at EU summit meeting in Brussels
  • 26-27 June: EU summit to designate next Commission president
  • 14-17 July: Parliament votes to approve or reject the candidate put forward by EU heads of states
  • Summer: Each of the 28 national governments designate their nominees for the European Commission. The new president distributes portfolios within his team.
  • September: Individual commissioners scrutinised in hearings before Parliament
  • October: Parliament votes to approve or reject the new Commission as a whole
  • 1 November: Target date for new Commission to take office


Jerry_UK's picture

OK, so the EU’s chief scientific advisor is monitoring what the EU says and does in relation to her advice and other scientific data, claiming that the "EU is twisting facts to fit political agendas". But who is monitoring the chief scientific advisor's advice, after all if her advice to president Barroso remains confidential it is not being (peer) reviewed either. What we need is an open dialogue from everyone, otherwise how do we know that there are no agendas, and if so by whom - this is not just a problem of politicains, the scientific community is not beyond having their own agendas either, even more so when research grants etc. depend on there being a 'crisis'.

Mike Parr's picture

Her advice is confidential, there is no reason why the internal org that she is proposing could not make its evidence gathering public and publish the evidence that it gathers. I think you need to read the article more carefully.

In the case of "the scientific community is not beyond having their own agendas either" instead of making an assertion perhaps you would care to back this up with some examples.

ErwinGordon's picture

The so-called scientific community is rife with their own agendas. It's almost so bad that it's more like a religious community. Consider for example, the physics community. The so-called standard model, the big bang theory and supersymmetry have so little evidence backing it up it's laughable. Consider that these models are full of mathematical abstractions (i.e. zero-dimensional particles, one-dimensional strings, two-dimensional spacetime ribbon-tape, and curved space-time) that have no basis is reality and that are utterly useless in explaining anything. But hundreds of thousands if not millions of scientists the world over cling to these fantasies because they know that if the con is discovered, the billions that they get in funding would dry up overnight.

Or even more to the point (and to which the EU chief scientist is equally clueless about), GMOs. It's been known for more than 100 years how to quickly grow nutrient rich sustainable food for more than 100 years since Dr. Julius Hensel discovered based on theoretical chemical considerations, and supported by practical tests, that powdered rock fertilisation especially from (granite, a primordial rock which contains the many trace minerals that meet all needs of plant nutrition) can replace not only chemical fertilizers but all animal ones as well. In fact, when it is used, the plants grow quicker, stronger, larger and free of diseases! What it showed is that just as in humans, if a species has all the required nutrients for cellular renewal and is free of toxins, that it will remain healthy. This was further reinforced by the work of Dr. Maynard Murray in the 1940s and 1950s who using sea solids (from areas where there is a rich mixture of sea life) that again, the plants grew quicker, stronger larger and free of disease than conventionally grown plants. Again the key in both cases is that the soil has all of the nutrients needed for the plant to take up to remain healthy and grow quickly. So the question that begs to be asked is what problem does GMO solve? It doesn't solve anything. In fact it is BECAUSE of the use of chemical fertiliser that does the following: 1. It poisons the soil, destroying beneficial soil bacteria, earthworms and humus; 2. It creates unhealthy, unbalanced, mineral-deficient plants, lacking resistance to disease and insect pests, thus leading to the use of pesticides in an effort to preserve these defective specimens; 3. It leads to diseases among animals and men who feed on these abnormal plants and their products; 4. It leads to a increase expenses for the farmer, because chemical fertilizers, being extremely soluble, are quickly washed from the soil by rainfall and needs constant replacement. So GMOs are trying to compensate for these problems by creating unnatural combinations of genes to address the problems created by this. And by doing that based on INDEPENDENT research, we see that it has disastrous consequences it has on animals and humans. Even beyond that, the copious use of glyphosate has major health consequences since as a chelate it binds to and robs the plants of nutrients. And note that she is the Chief Scientist. So imagine how bad the others must be!

Jerry_UK's picture

Mike, do yourself a favour, go look up the UEA email scandal. If there wasn't anything to hide and if such data was public domain by default then there would have been no problem and nothing would have been hidden, nothing could have been implied or exposed by such a hack, nor could there be the possibility of the "twisting of facts" from anyone, hacker, politician or scientist.

Mike Parr's picture

But nothing was found wrt UEA - there was no "scandal" & I sympathise with scientists having to deal with the half wits and cretins that attempted to manufacture one