The chief is dead: what next for science policy advice in Europe?

Was the recently scraped role of European chief scientific adviser (CSA) position, held by Anne Glover, doomed to fail from the outset? Clearly it was a role that was under resourced and not clearly defined, at no fault of Glover’s, who was clearly full of the right stuff coming from the post of chief scientist in Scotland. And what role did the lobbying by a coalition of NGOs—including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth—who called for the post to be scrapped? Without an easily identifiable and contactable figurehead, the exact mechanisms by which science policy-makers use evidence – or not – remain as mysterious and opaque as ever. The debate goes further than the question of whether Europe needs a single science advisor or a series of science advisors for every single discipline. It raises the question as to how in concrete terms the evidence-base can weave its way more systematically through the policy-making process.

Once upon a time, a CSA

Imagine, it was the job you had dreamed of. After successfully blending science and policy in your native country, it was time to step up to the European level and get noticed at the global stage. But you do not meet your boss for 51 days. You begin with fewer staff than in your previous role, even though the job was clearly more demanding. You have a significant public profile, yet you do not even get a webpage for more than six months. The job description remains undefined for 207 days. Then, after nearly a year, you have a team of just four people to manage a workload that spans the whole of Europe.

On the plus side, you get to meet Walter Koenig, who played Chekhov in the original Star Trek series.

It’s not a fiction.

This is exactly what happened to Anne Glover, who until recently was Europe’s first CSA. Her early departure and axing of the CSA role became public when European scientists were celebrating the Rosetta mission landing on a comet. The touchdown turned out to be something of a crash; might this move bounce back to ultimately be perceived a failure? Certainly, it has provoked a critical backlash from major European scientific organisations and leading scientists.

“The sacking of the CSA is a disgrace for European science and Europe as a whole,” says Victor de Lorenzo, molecular microbiology professor at the Spanish National Biotechnology Centre in Madrid, Spain. “I am very concerned that the new Commission may select scientific evidence a posteriori in support of its already decided policies, rather than using the same evidence for developing an agenda on many touchy matters.”

Lorenzo has considerable experience of making policy recommendations in Europe. Under previous EC president Barroso, who created the European CSA position, Lorenzo co-chaired with Glover the president’s Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC), which, like Glover’s webpage, now has a red ‘archived’ stamp rudely protruding at visitors.

War of words

Considerable anger has been squared at NGOs, which co-signed a letter to new EC President Jean-Claude Juncker urging him to scrap the role. The letter cited Glover’s comments on the safety of genetically-engineered organisms (GMOs) and argued too much power was concentrated in one person. In response, 40 organisations signed a counter letter supporting the role.

When contacted by EuroScientist, Greenpeace said their position was not about being for or against issues like GM food, contentious chemicals, nanotechnology or climate change. A spokesperson for the NGO explains in a statement: “Scientific advice is the cornerstone of sound policy making. The question is how to ensure that the best representation of wide-ranging and transparent scientific advice is available. In its current form, the role of chief scientific advisor to the Commission ended up hindering this process instead of helping it.”

By way of example, Greenpeace says the CSA position undermines expert research when it seeks to adjudicate in a matter in which someone else has already been appointed adjudicator. “This was the case with the discussion on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).”

They go onto say that now that the post has been scrapped, “the Commission has a chance to put science advice on a solid foundation grounded on principles of openness, independence of advice, transparency and clarity of roles.” Greenpeace, on 18th November 2014, published its principles for scientific advice to the European Commission.

This is what everyone wants, and precisely the principles Glover espoused when interviewed by EuroScientist in June 2014, on whether European countries need a chief scientific adviser. “The most important thing to me, as much as is possible, is to provide unbiased, timely and credible evidence on the table as a platform for policy options to be developed,” she said.

Despite the ferocious criticism levelled at Greenpeace and Co for openly lobbying for the CSA’s removal, it is impossible to gauge if it had any influence. “I don’t think they helped, but I don’t think it was decisive,” says James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, UK. “Both sides are as bad as each other, and neither has covered themselves in glory.”

New horizons or vanishing point?

The big question is how the European Commission plans to fill the gap. However, Lucia Caudet, EC spokesperson on Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, says there has not been any decision to “axe” the position of the chief scientific adviser. “It simply expired,” she says, because the mandate of the scientific adviser was linked to the Barroso Commission that installed it.

Officially, science base policy is still the way forward. “President Juncker believes in independent scientific advice,” adds Caudet. “He has not yet decided how to institutionalise this independent scientific advice.” That leaves us none the wiser as to how evidence translates into policy.

However, the first measures taken by the Juncker administration point to a governing style that is more geared towards politics-based rather than evidence-based policy making. Worryingly, the Bureau of European Policy Advisers that Glover worked from has also been replaced or ‘revamped’ with a new European Political Strategy Centre. There is no reference to science whatsoever its six teams.

Instead, the intention appears to rely on the multiple experts in a broad range of disciplines already employed by the EU. That leaves us with the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the EC’s in-house science service, tasked with providing EU policies with independent, evidence-based scientific advice. Caudet points out that the JRC is fully embedded in the policy making process. “Its work benefits from its wide pool of recognised natural and social scientists and its overall independence from private and national interests that allow it to be recognised as an unbiased and policy-neutral science service.”

However, the JRC is currently not reporting not to the Directorate General (DG) for Research and Innovation, as before, but to the DG for…hum…Education and Culture. The EC spokesperson contacted confirmed this was the case, but did not comment on the reason for such change when asked.

Weaving evidence-based into the policy process

It leaves many wondering exactly how advice in science policy making currently works—or not—inside the Brussels machine; some DGs have senior scientific advisers for example, and other do not. And not all DGs are obliged to use the services of the in-house JRC.

But there are worthwhile ideas that could add greater clarity and accountability to policy-making. The process could be modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, where every comment needs to be documented as to why it is or is not taken on board, suggests Carsten Neßhöver, co-head of the UFZ science-policy expert group at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany. “A web platform or something visible could be used so it would be more transparent,” he says. “It would be a very vigorous procedure, but you could see where proposals come from and what they are based on.”

This suggestion would bring us a step closer to bringing relevant coordinated scientific expertise in a transparent way to policy making. Neßhöver adds that his group, who has developed a Knowledge Network for European Expertise on biodiversity and ecosystem services to inform policy making, are thinking about using such processes themselves and developing a model. “This high level of transparency is something many people won’t like,” he says. “It’s highly unlikely something like this will be installed, but I think you have to think along these lines.”

Transparency for tomorrow

Despite the difficulties that Glover experienced, including a huge mandate as well as a loosely-defined ‘champion for science’ role, both Neßhöver and Wilsdon still believe in the right guise there is mileage in a European CSA post. “Anne didn’t have a matching team around her to do the things in her terms of reference,” says Wilsdon. “But there are CSAs in London, Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, Auckland… there’s no reason why the role could not work in Brussels. She [Glover] faced an uphill struggle, but no inherent reason it was doomed to failure.”

Neßhöver adds that if these positions are properly installed, have a proper back office and a clear mandate of what they are supposed to do, they can help especially in contested debates on strengthening the role of the evidence.

This will only work with a precise mandate. What also needs to be defined is whether any future CSAs—within EC departments or overall—are free to speak out; and whether the EC will back their right to express an opinion in public. As Glover notes, if a CSA just parrots the organisation’s line then they’re not credible and next to useless: “What’s the point? There are lots of officials and you can just ask them. You have to allow a degree of independence from the institution.”

Whether or not the EC ever appoints another CSA, or prefers to rely on its multiple experts, it is time for it to properly account for how scientific advice is and isn’t used in Brussels. In a sense, it does not matter whether there is an overriding chief adviser to hold to account or a series of departmental policy chiefs as is more common among EC departments as well as European Member States where at present just two countries (UK, and, arguably Ireland, where it is a split role) have chief scientists.

What matters is that we can see who is influencing who and with what. We have the will, and the technology, to not be left in the dark. Given that the EC’s in-house science advisory service, the JRC, is a whopping 3,000 staff strong and in six sites across the EU, you would think it was something they would have the resources to make good.

Featured image credit: European Commission

Arran Frood

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