NGO backlash to Chief Scientific Advisor position grows

Anne Glover, EU Chief Scientific Advisor (flickr/Creative Commons)

EXCLUSIVE / More European non-profit groups have thrown their weight behind a call by Greenpeace and HEAL for the European Commission to scrap the position of its Science Tsar, Anne Glover, in a letter sent to the incoming EU president, Jean-Claude Juncker, which EurActiv has seen.

A previous missive by nine, mostly environmental, NGOs sent to Juncker on 22 July provoked accusations that green groups were trying to shoot a science-based messenger who had occasionally taken advocacy positions that, for instance, favoured GMOs.

Now 13 more non-profit groups – including heavy-hitters such as Friends of the Earth - have added their names to the call, citing a statement by Glover reported in EurActiv earlier this month that her advice should remain “not transparent” and immune from public scrutiny, as cause for concern.

“Scientific scrutiny in policymaking is essential,” said Jorgo Riss, the director of Greenpeace EU. “The question is how to ensure that the best representation of wide-ranging advice is available to you and your colleagues. The CSA position does not help and cannot fulfill this purpose because of the fundamental flaws of the role itself.”

Juncker must soon decide whether to keep Glover’s Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) role, which was established by his predecessor, President José Manuel Barroso.

The NGOs letter argues that he should abolish it because objectivity and advice requires a diversity of sources, and a consistent response to scientific evidence, such as that presented by the Commission’s own Joint Research Center (JRC).

But the JRC’s contributions to policy debate are often augmented by impact assessments outsourced to external consulting firms which, Glover argues, have a “political imperative” behind them that can distort facts.  

Her proposed solution is an evidence-gathering portal service that would act independently of politicians - although they could still override the portal’s findings if they judged social or economic considerations to be more important.

Glover has won support from some scientists, and industry lobbies for her stances. BusinessEurope, the European employers’ confederation recently wrote to the outgoing EU president José Manuel Barroso, praising Glover and asking him to “further institutionalise” the Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) spot.

Vested interests

The NGOs contend that this is part of the problem.  “Vested interests have long realised that the more you concentrate scientific advice into the hands of one person, the easier it is to control,” they write. “Politicians value an apparently authoritative voice for garnering support for particular policies.”

Of the three EU countries that had established a full-time CSA post in government – the UK, Czech Republic and Ireland – only the UK was still maintaining it, the letter says, and there it has come under fire for issuing partial advice, closely aligned to specific commercial and political interests.   

“The influence of corporate lobbyists is made even easier by the fact that the CSA of the European Commission has no obligation to publish the advice given to the President,” the NGOs say.

Professor Glover is currently out of the country on summer leave and was unable to respond to the new line of attack from NGOs. But her office made clear that they would anyway prefer to stay above the fray

“The issue is in the public domain and politicians and scientists are making statements,” a member of her staff told EurActiv. “It is better that others speak, than us.”

  • 1 November: End of José Manuel Barroso's mandate as President of the European Commission
  • December: Probable end of Anne Glover's mandate


myuille's picture

The anti-Glover NGOs are conflating two issues:
1. is it right for the Commission to get scientific advice?
2. how can we protect - protect fully - scientific advisers from lobby group pressure?

For NGOs that are committed to evidence-based policy, it is unthinkable that they might deny the Commission access to scientific advice. They really need to de-conflate themselves!

To protect advisers from lobbyists, the first step is that lobbying must be completely transparent. If 100% transparency doesn't work, thern we need some more laws. Transparency requires ALL lobbyists (including NGOs) to say who they met with or communicated with, why and when. It requires advisers to exclude themselves from any advice where they know a lobbyiist outside the job. It requires advisers to tell the Commission which lobbyists they have met / communicated with. All this then requires policing with regular public reports to the Commission.

This will all cost money. It might save money to make these rules apply to named issues only - issues specified publicly by the Commission (on scientific advice).

Gerry's picture

These NGO' s aren't them first ones to demand transparency from the scientific community. The climate sceptics played that card very hard. Of course various research institutes refused, since it's is simply no use dumping larger amounts of raw data on people. All that data is produced by specific instruments, and the only ones to correctly interpret them are those instruments operators. Then those results need to be set out in a statistical form. Then these statistics need to be interpreted as well in relation to all other information. This whole rather complex situation should be handled by relevant experts, and they are simply the scientists, who are trained in all this and who publish their results and conclusions for other scientists to either agree or disagree with. Eventually, a consensus will emerge. The reason things are done this way is that there is simply no way a layman could ever make any sense from the huge amount of raw data that is produced, but more importantly all kinds of untalented individuals will concoct whatever theory that pleases them .

jjmadsen's picture

The letter by the NGO's appear to confuse CHIEF Scientific Advisor with SOLE Scientific Advisor. No one could reasonably expect the Chief Scientific Advisor - as learned as she/he should be - to be omnipotent and to know everything about every discipline.
The CSA's first and foremost job is to make sure that the voice of scientific evidence is heard inside the Commission. That includes both internal services like the Commissions own Joint Research Centre, but also advice from the scientific communities.
The novelty that Barroso created was not to hear or not to hear the voice of science, but to create an institutional structure with a specific person in charge of ensuring that it actually does happen. And who would want to disagree with that need?
Having said that one can always argue whether the advice should be public or confidential, there are arguments both ways and my personal opinion is irrelevant in this respect. However, whatever the outcome may be I think the fact that the question itself is being discussed shows that there is a need to have the advice.
Given the speed of events in political life if there is not a clear and efficient procedure in place, the advice will in critical situations simply come to late and then be irrelevant.
It thus seems that rather than abolishing the position it should be staffed better to achieve the goal that both the supporters and the critics even agree on.