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.”

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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