Glover: EU chief scientist should stay in the shadows

Anne Glover at the 20th European Biomass Conference and Exhibition, 18-22 June 2012 [Photo: European Biomass Conference and Exhibition / Flickr]

Anne Glover at the 20th European Biomass Conference and Exhibition, 18-22 June 2012 [Photo: European Biomass Conference and Exhibition / Flickr]

Anne Glover, the EU’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has said that her opinions to the European Commission should remain independent from politics and therefore “not transparent” and immune from public scrutiny. The incoming Commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, is considering to maintain her position after Barroso leaves, EURACTIV understands.

Glover has made few public statements since her appointment in December 2011 as chief scientific advisor to José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission who will step down on 1 November.

In fact, the advice she has given Barroso remains confidential, although she has spoken out publicly on subjects such as climate changeGMOs and shale gas.

A former scientific advisor to Scotland (2006-2011), Glover knows her opinions may sometimes trigger heated debate because they touch upon sensitive political issues.

Keeping science away from politics

“Of course I am aware of the political implications of some of the things I say,” she recently told a pre-European election event organised by Eurochambres, the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

“But I try to focus everything I do on the evidence,” she said.

For Glover, keeping science away from politics is essential to her role. And this implies a necessary degree of confidentiality. Asked by EURACTIV to reveal the areas on which Barroso had sought advice during her two-year mandate, she refused to answer in detail, arguing that the process was meant to be occluded.

“Why is it not transparent? Because if it is transparent, then everybody will try to defend their position. And I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in getting the best evidence possible.”

The understanding between her and Barroso always was to maintain confidentiality, she continued, “so I’m not going to tell you”.

One of the reasons for keeping confidentiality is that politicians may change their positions overnight, Glover explained, even though the scientific evidence has not budged.

Taking nuclear power as an example, “the evidence around the value of nuclear power in terms of climate change or safety stays the same,” she said, “so I can’t change what I say overnight.”

For Glover, confidentiality means that she can “challenge” political decisions about divisive issues like nuclear power or GMO cultivation, debates which can easily veer out of control when thrown into the public sphere.

“What I try to do is to say ‘I don’t think your evidence is supporting your conclusion’,” she explained.

Impact assessments should be more transparent

Still, Glover called for more transparency around scientific evidence used in the Commission’s impact assessment studies, which mark the early stages of EU decision-making processes. Stakeholders should be able to review the evidence on which politicians base their decisions and hold them to account, she argues.

“You would be balancing the evidence base and making an analysis to determine why giving more weight to that evidence over that evidence. And that would be transparent. So every stakeholder whether a citizen, a business, a politician, a scientist – can look at the reasoning that’s behind all of that,” she said.

Glover said she wanted to stay on in her role in order to brief the incoming Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on her plans.

“I think I will probably stay until the end of the year because a big imperative for me is to try and rethink the evidence-gathering process within the Commission. And also I want to persuade the new President that she or he needs to have a chief scientific advisor and the role needs to be properly supported.”

Foresight network

One achievement Glover said she was proud of was the establishment of “a foresight network” of Commission officials across key departments who meet to discuss advances in science and technology and their impact on society.

“For the first time, with the support of Barroso, I have a foresight network in the Commission which involves 21 of the DGs [Directorate-Generals] and 220 people across the Commission,” something she says has immense value because it “crosses silos”.

“These people sit down and talk about what is being done in science, engineering and technology, what will really be disruptive, and what the Commission should do, if anything, to ensure that the EU citizen can get the best impact from that – and that of course includes business.”

The network discusses “what 2030 is going to look like and how we as a Commission could ensure the best possible outcome for citizens, businesses and the environment.”

‘Brussels bubble’ debates Glover’s role

The question of whether the incoming Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker should re-appoint Glover – or someone else – to her post has stirred controversy in the Brussels bubble of EU policy specialists.

Juncker’s spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, suggested there were chances that the position would be maintained.

“President-elect Juncker believes in the added value of independent scientific advice and will decide how to make use of such advice in the work of the new Commission after having taken up office,” Bertaud told EURACTIV in an email.

BusinessEurope, the EU employers’ association, has shown clear support for maintaining the position. In a letter sent in May to José Manuel Barroso, it praised the “positive steps” that were taken under the outgoing Commission to encourage the use of “high quality science whenever officials develop policy, laws and rules.”

The employers’ group particularly welcomed the appointment of Anne Glover as Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) to the Commission President. “We see the CSA as a key proponent in science-based decision-making,” it said, encouraging Barroso’s successor Jean-Claude Juncker to “further institutionalise the role of scientific evidence in the political process.”

“The CSA should have a formal role in the Impact Assessment Board,” BusinessEurope added, referring to the grouping of Commission directors who review draft assessments of key policy proposals. It said the EU’s chief scientist should be consulted formally also during the so-called “interservice consultation” stage where policy proposals are discussed between Commission departments.

But Glover’s role at the Commission has drawn criticism from transparency campaigners, who are calling on Juncker to scrap the position.

“The post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration,” wrote the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) in a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker.

According to CEO, the role of Chief Scientific Adviser has been “unaccountable, intransparent and controversial,” noting the nature of Anne Glover’s advice to the Commission President remains unknown and confidential. 

It also cited “one-sided, partial opinions” Glover gave to the media in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, saying her views did not reflect the scientific consensus.

“We hope that you as the incoming Commission President will decide not to nominate a chief scientific adviser and that instead the Commission will take its advice from a variety of independent, multi-disciplinary sources, with a focus on the public interest,” CEO said.

Praise from the scientific community

In scientific circles however, Glover has attracted more praise than criticism.

James Wilsdon, a professor of science and democracy at Sussex University, commended her for establishing the Euroscience Open Forum, a new pan-EU network of government science advisers, launched in Copenhagen on 23 June.

Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Wilsdon called for an “evidence-based Union” and praised Glover for having established herself as “a thoughtful and persuasive ambassador for science and evidence within the Brussels system,” saying he hoped her role would be continued under Juncker’s leadership.

The Sussex professor called for a closer integration of the EU’s chief scientist with the Commission’s Joint Research Centre, a step he said “could move some way towards the Commission ‘evidence service’ model that Glover has argued for”. 

As reported by EURACTIV earlier, Glover has argued for an “evidence centre” to be established at the European Commission that would disconnect the EU’s evidence gathering processes from the “political imperative” that drives policy proposals.

>> Read: EU twisting facts to fit political agenda, chief scientist says

Professor Anne Glover was appointed in December 2011 as the chief scientific advisor to José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President.

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).

Under Glover’s watch, the Commission set up a special advisory group to provide the EU executive with independent information and advice on an array of scientific and technology issues.

The group aims to help the Commission deal with political minefields such as genetically modified crops, biofuels and shale gas.

>> Read: New group to advise Barroso on science, technology

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

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