Liberal Democrat scientists tell Juncker to keep Scientific Adviser amid pressure from environmental groups to drop the post

New EI Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has had lots of conflicting advice about what to do about the post of the Commission’s Chief Scientific Officer. Environmental NGO’s seem to want to get rid of the post while research organisations want to keep it. The Guardian reports:

The NGOs called the role, which was introduced in 2012 by current EC president José Manuel Barroso and has been occupied since then by a biologist at the University of Aberdeen, Prof Anne Glover, “fundamentally problematic”. Their letter argued that the non-elected role concentrated too much influence in one person, undermining research by the wider science community, while being non-transparent and unaccountable. The letter took particular issue with Glover’s pro GM crops stance.

The NGOs want the president to take advice from a number of independent sources. Other signatories included GM Watch and the Health and Environment Alliance.

In response, two more open letters were sent to Juncker on Friday, signed by numerous European scientific organisations, supporting the CSA role and its independence. One of the letters, with signatories including the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, Sense About Science and the Royal Institution, states: “Policy makers or lobbyists who seek to remove scientists because they don’t like their findings or advice do so at the peril of their citizens.”

The Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists have put their views forward to Mr Juncker, saying that the position could do with a bit of reform, but they want it to stay. Here is their letter.

We write to you on the subject of the appointment of a new Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission; a post held until recently by Professor Anne Glover.

We commend the record of Professor Glover, the first postholder in this position, both in her role as an adviser and in promoting the pursuit and appreciation of science in Europe.

As a membership association promoting sound scientific advice within the Liberal Democrat Party and the United Kingdom, we were disconcerted to read the letter addressed to you from nine NGOs asking that you abolish the position of Chief Scientific Adviser. We feel strongly that Professor Glover’s record in establishing a respected and effective focus for science advice and promotion within the European Commission should be further developed and supported, rather than abandoned.

We are sympathetic to the demands of the letter that science advice should be transparent and open about divergent opinions, but feel that the proposed solution (taking advice from “a variety of independent, multi-disciplinary sources, with a focus on the public interest”) would instead leave the Commission more vulnerable to the influence of lobby groups.

We also recognise that scientific evidence is only one facet of policymaking. Indeed, on the subject of genetically modified organisms (the main issue which seems to have motivated the NGO letter), we feel it is important to distinguish between evaluating the safety of crops themselves (to consumers and the environment) and responsible implementation of agricultural and commercial activities involving GMOs. Recognising this distinction, it is more important for science advisers to be able to address evidence on an issue-by-issue basis.

For the purpose of drawing on an adequately broad base of expertise, we support the efforts of Professor Glover in launching a pan-European network of scientific advisers at this year’s Euroscience Open Forum as a means of sharing knowledge and best practice between science advisers from EU member states.

We believe that the key to confidence in political decisionmaking lies in transparent and accessible processes and active engagement with stakeholders and citizens. While we agree that there could be improvements made on both of these fronts, we feel that abolishing the post of Chief Scientific Adviser would undo much of the progress already made.

It seems like a call for a good old-fashioned evidence based approach to scientific policy making. Just what you would expect from Liberal Democrat scientists.

 

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10 Comments

  • The House of Lords EU select committee recently had an evidence session with Ann Glover, which can be found on the Parliament website. She is a very impressive figure and confirmed for me why it is essential to have evidence led input to policy making. It’s up to politicians what they do with the evidence, but they should always have access to it.

  • Richard Dean 30th Jul '14 - 3:53pm

    Some aspects of transparency could be easily addressed, perhaps they are already, simply by publishing the advice that the CSA gives. Also, I wonder if it might help to clarify what the CSA’s role should be in respect of different types of advice? For instance:

    > Providing a summary of the present state of knowledge is reasonably non-controversial, almost factual though it does involve some judgment about what should be included, well suited to the CSA role,
    > Making judgments about where the truth lies in a set of competing scientific claims would be a different category of advice, difficult and contestable, but necessary given the potential influence of money on scientific opinion.
    > Assessing how a piece of science is perceived by the wider community is another category. While a CSA may have information about it, this type of advice is perhaps more in the competence of politicians and NGO’s .

  • Are these NGOs also lobbying the UK and other governments to drop Chief Scientist posts? Surely the fact that they aren’t elected is rather the point they are there to give the Commission expert advise just as equivalents in National Governments.

    It reflects rather badly on some environmental NGOs that they are happy to go with the Scientific consensus on climate change but not be prepared to look at the evidence when it comes to issues like GMOs as it doesn’t fit with their/their members prejudices.

  • Paul In Wokingham 30th Jul '14 - 4:14pm

    @Simon – or as Winston Churchill said, “experts should be on tap, not on top”. Confirmation bias etc etc.

  • Richard Dean 30th Jul '14 - 4:27pm

    Quoting Churchill is certainly a great example of confirmation bias in action!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

  • Stephen Hesketh 30th Jul '14 - 4:32pm

    In any human endeavour there are good and bad, profesional and amateur etc. NGO’s are no exception.

    I have a scientific background and am faced with NGO target lists from time to time . Exposure, risk, probability and simple logic appear alien concepts to some.

    Keeping the post of Chief Scientific Adviser to the President is a must – as is ensuring those outside the corridors of power are also heard, including evidence-based NGOs.

  • FirstlyPaul, I am not sure why Churchill’s view on this is at all relevant. Noone should be on top, but I can telly you in our country the scientists are not the ones to worry about!

    I, like Stephen, skeptical of NGO as much as anyone else. Environmental ones seem happy to set themselves up as the conscience for everyone but their frequent lack of application of the scientific method and use of polemic and emotion rather than fact makes me just as doubting of their pronouncements as any corporate body……remember, they have to justify and fund their existence.

    To oppose a scientist because of an apparent support of GMO when GMO are opposed on the precautionary principle and on emotion more than hard, scientific fact is worrying and should be resisted. There seems to be very much a political slant to this ‘letter’

    GM Watch, for example, seems not to be an organisation that sounds to be open to evidence – the name suggests they have made up their minds. Not that I am a proponent for GM but I am still open-minded on it

    I am glad to see the LD standing up for scientific principles, and hopefully encouraging a better understanding of science and how it works in the wider community. This is one of the great challenges for the West as we seem to have become more wedded to looking at hazard rather than risk and precaution rather than evidence. I felt Parliament was much weaker after the loss of Evan Harris at the last election.

    I hope the LD encourage more people of his quality to stand, rather than the usual PPE graduates and lawyers we see dominating politics. People who wouldn’t understand the scientific method if it hit them in the face…..our current Health Secretary being one who believes in cranky ideas, and I saw also recently a member of the Science Committtee who believes astrology should be used in health treatment (Tory if I need to say….)

  • paul barker 30th Jul '14 - 8:53pm

    Its vital that Scientific Advice should come from real Scientists & The Bodies that represent them, not from Lobbyists & NGOs which often practise Politics by another name.

  • Charles Rothwell 31st Jul '14 - 7:57am

    “I hope the LD encourage more people of his quality to stand, rather than the usual PPE graduates and lawyers we see dominating politics. People who wouldn’t understand the scientific method if it hit them in the face…..” Amen to that! “Some way” to go for all the three main parties, however: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jun/17/labour-candidates-marginal-seats-westminster-insiders

  • Looks like the Lib Dems have a serious problem with a Minister ignoring scientific advice, as does every scientist in the UK now.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-28580792

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