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.”