Do European countries need a Chief Scientific Adviser?

Health, transport, science and security: these are the areas of government where the mantra of ‘evidence-based policy making’ is repeated across departments. Especially for science, one would think that each European member State would have an easily identifiable individual that can provide independent, trusted advice to leaders on controversial topics such as shale gas or genetically modified crops. There might also be expected some degree of harmony in the way advice is filtered to the upper echelons of power. But no. A couple of years ago there were only three: the UK, Ireland and the Czech Republic. Only the UK has a dedicated Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in medical scientist, Sir Mark Walport. But both Ireland’s and the Czech Republic‘s CSAs’ job have been repositioned and redefined, the latter in February 2014.

Do scientists in the 27 European member States without a dedicated person to exclusively fulfil the role need a CSA? Do they have multiple experts performing the job on an ad hoc basis? It is difficult to assess what exactly they are missing out on, if at all.

One person in favour of CSAs at national level is the EU’s first Chief Scientific Adviser, biologist Anne Glover, who has held the inaugural post since late 2011 and is due to retire from this position at end of 2014. Reporting to the to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, she says the role is about having a trusted voice that government can call on to translate complex issues for policy-making minsters. Glover, who was also CSA for Scotland from 2006 to 2011, says CSAs can bring a focus for credible evidence-based policy in their member state. “And an understanding how that evidence should or should not be used in policy-making.”

She plans to develop her own, informal network of CSAs across Europe in the absence of formal posts. She’s also called for a new system of evidence gathering within the European Commission that entirely disconnects evidence gathering with the political imperative.

A friendly ear

The rationale for having a CSA is simple in theory: a large proportion of politicians across Europe have backgrounds in law, linguistics or the arts. In some countries, studying classics of Roman and Greek mythology is deemed the most suitable qualification for running a country. One would think key scientific advisers would be needed to rise above the politics and stick to the facts. It would require “someone who is not political,” as Glover puts it. “Someone who is stepping over the divide between evidence and policy, and politics.”

But governments across Europe are organised very differently. States like Germany have a more federal structure; then there are the two science ministers in the Wallon and Flanders regional governments of Belgium. Glover says that having one person to draw advice from, or hold to account, is a more Anglo-Saxon way of going about business. So it is no surprise that the US, Australia and New Zealand also have a single chief adviser.

Many scientists are drawn to the single CSA model. “Many important decisions are made without advice of these types of individuals,” says molecular microbiologist professor Victor de Lorenzo at the Spanish National Biotechnology Centre, in Madrid, Spain. “Some countries have them [CSAs] and some don’t, and I think that’s bad.”

Lorenzo says we are living in societies that are dependent on technology – and will be more so to move on from oil-based economies for example – and that it is essential that top political managers have a close person who is able to provide advice on developments that have an impact on policy. “Political decisions should be guided by solid science,” he says.

He is the co-chair with Glover of the relatively new Science and Technology Advisory Council, a body of 15 academics created in 2013 to advise the EC President. As a group, they have reported on the role of science in society, and their second report will be about future technologies that could be disruptive in the future, such as human enhancement. “It is not usual that active scientists are heard by such a high level of decision makers,” says Lorenzo of the group.

European CSA network

But as a group, this advisory council is some way from the individual CSA role that scientists like Lorenzo and Glover would like to see. As the EC’s CSA, Glover is now sounding out individuals to take on such a role as part of an informal pan-EU CSA network. She says she has a dozen nominees from the scientific communities of member states such as Sweden, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain that will meet at ESOF 2014 in June.

What she says is important in a CSA is credibility in their scientific community as well as in political circles. Glover admits, however, that the scope and role of such a group is yet to be formalised. “I would very much like for us to have an informal network of European CSAs or equivalents,” she says. “To discuss key areas around science advice sharing, best practice, including in times of emergency where we have to translate advice very quickly.”

But it’s not a model that suits everyone. Jean Pierre Alix says the structure of research in France, where he was an adviser to the Minister of Research from 1995-97, is already very complex, and features smaller advisory panels. “So it is not evident how a new Super Chief scientist would help,” he says. Also a Science in Society Program Chief at France’s national funding agency CNRS from 2006-11, he adds that the need for CSAs have come from different historical events. “So the sea to promote science may follow different paths.”

However, one advantage he does see is if Euro-CSAs could meet in a formal way to alert and advise on common questions in European science policy. “But the European science budget would have to increase really if one wants this mechanism to be influential,” says Alix.

Science advocacy

Another role for a Europe-wide network of CSAs could be championing the cause of science and fighting for finances in their respective member states. Genetics professor from Trinity College Dublin, Patrick Cunningham was Ireland’s CSA from 2007 to 2012. During this period, the country encountered significant financial turmoil. “I certainly feel having a CSA at that time that I was able to articulate, both in committee as well as in public, the importance of science as a long-term investment in the country’s future,” he says.

Cunningham explains that part of the role was sustaining the courage and belief of the political decision-makers to continue building on what had been built on in previous years. “I think there’s evidence of that there: science spending held up through the recession better than almost any other area of the country’s expenditure,” he says, though adding that he cannot claim to have been fulcrum of that change.

His CSA role was controversially merged—some say axed—with Mark Ferguson‘s role as director general of funding agency Science Foundation Ireland, Dublin. Critics say it is a clear conflict of interest to have the same person giving advice as executing it. Indeed, Ferguson holds the keys to around €140 million of funding power, the country’s single largest research-funding agency. Cunningham, though, only diplomatically questions whether any one person can do the two roles: “I’m not criticising the judgement, but to have more than a full other job to do means they don’t have too much time [for the CSA role].”

Holding in, speaking out

A key issue is the degree of the independence of CSA roles. Cunningham says that independence is important, because almost every other voice in the political space is a voice with a special interest of some kind. How much can they really speak out?

One advisor who found out the hard way was neuropharmacology professor David Nutt of Imperial College London, UK. As head of the UK’s Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs he was infamously sacked by the government for telling the truth about the relative dangers of legal versus illegal drugs. Despite his experience, he is broadly in favour of CSAs. “I think they are critical to ensure the voice of science is heard at all levels of government,” he says. Nutt also thinks a network of Euro-CSAs could be a strong voice for scientific reason in Europe. “Chief scientists should cover all briefs, but each different department should have their local experts.”

He adds that ideally they should be independent – but the degree of independence comes down to trust. “Sadly in the past it’s always been you trust us [i.e. the government] and we will trust you when it suits us.”

In an attempt to improve trust and discourse between politicians and scientists, some researchers even published 20 tips for interpreting scientific claims in the journal Nature, ranging from ‘bias is rife’ to ‘randomisation avoids bias’; a case perhaps for looking again at performing randomised trials on policy so that they are evidence-based.

CSAs draw upon “tremendous experts in almost all areas of science and technology,” as the UK’s CSA Mark Walport told the EuroScientist in a podcast, last year, reflecting on his own experience. This is clearly essential. Without properly independent expert advice any new CSAs in European States could find themselves with roles that could be rightly criticised as merely ceremonial – to cut ribbons and open labs, or take flak for unpopular technologies like genetically modified crops. Worse still, they could just be accused of being government spin doctors.

No-one wants that. What is really important is governments that are committed to science. And it is also key that science is used judiciously in policy-making by politicians with a scientific background at the heart of government.

Unfortunately, politicians have one trump card over scientists: they were democratically elected. To those with scientific sensibilities, it might look like a mean trick, but elected officials are obliged only to draw upon advice, not to execute it. They can always be swayed by second guessing what voters might think, or want, and claim to be representing the wishes of their constituents.

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Doug Wheller

A ESOF 2014 sessions relevant to this post is entitled: Evidence-based policies in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Go back to the Special Issue: ESOF2014


Arran Frood

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2 thoughts on “Do European countries need a Chief Scientific Adviser?”

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