Anne Glover: the art of providing scientific advice to policy makers

Anne Glover currently serves as Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission (her title is abreviated as EU CSA). She is also a Scottish biologist and professor of molecular biology and cell biology at the University of Aberdeen, UK. She was previously the first ever Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland, between 2006 and 2011.

We present here an exclusive Skype interview of Anne Glover with the EuroScientist. Unfortunately, the video quality is somewhat constrained by the mobile Skype communication used for the recording. As some of you may already know, Skype does not feature on the computers of the European Commission (EC)— quite understandably so, in the light of revelations concerning the US National Security Agency eavesdropping on the EU.

Despite issues with image quality, the EuroScientist made the decision to publish this interview. We do not want to sacrifice appearances over substance because of our limited technical means and resources. In publishing this interview, we remain true to the grassroots spirit of the EuroScientist magazine, bringing our readers information from scientists, working at all levels of the scientific hierarchy, with interesting stories to tell.

In this interview, Glover talks about the art of providing science policy advice to policy makers, using evidence-base. “We’ve always needed scientific advice because if you are going to develop a policy, it is good that it be based on some kind of evidence, that it is transparent, and that people can interrogate, and that the policy is not based on gut feeling,” she says.

She also replaces her role into the wider context of a highly research intensive society. She adds: “As we are in a period of almost exponential change—I am just thinking about how quickly knowledge is generated and how many new technologies there are—we probably do need scientific advice much more now than we used to.” She then gives the example of data regulation, where the amount of personal data, accumulated on the internet, is such that policy may need to restrict unnecessary or unwanted data capture.

Questioned about the art of giving advice outside her own area of expertise, Glover explains that she is rarely asked to provide advice in her own field. Instead, she relies on a number of EU agencies, such as the EC Joint Research Centre, experts from various agencies associated with the Commission, such as the European Food Safety Authority, the European Medicine’s agency as well as the scientific advisory councils from national science academies and the EU Science and Technology Advisory Council inaugurated in 2013. “I don’t have a super brain that knows everything, far from it, but … I know whom to ask.”

The most challenging aspect of her job, she explains, relates to the slow pace of change. By comparison to doing research in her own lab where she has a bit more control over how quickly work progresses, providing advice at the EC level means that consultation with the 28 member States slows things down. Yet, “the fact that there are 28 member States is a wonderful thing because they each have their own personality and expertise in different areas…”

I think where we could do things better is to make it “much much easier for different policy areas to access the best possible evidence.” It is not so easy for policy makers who do not have a knowledge of scientific networks, she acknowledges.

She sees further improvements required in having a clearer demarcation between science and policy. “It would be useful for people to have a clear understanding of where the evidence stops and where policy begins….” This would help defining options for policy to proceed. She gives the example of human stem cell research, where “the difficulty is to differentiate between what the evidence is and also what people’s views and opinions are… sometimes [people] don’t care about the evidence, and they just have a strong belief in something. And for me that’s a really difficult interface.”

She then goes on to call for stronger science communication to diffuse the tension between scientists, policy makers and citizens. The interface between scientific evidence and policy is an area “where a lot more citizen engagement would be helpful because scientists and policy makers and, even sometimes politicians, … are a little bit removed from the actual citizens that [they] do all this for.”

She concludes: “one of the things I would really encourage is for scientists to get out and to communicate to people about the value of what we do. So to say to a citizen, what’s in it for you if we do some embryonic stem cell research, why is it that we want to do it.”

Read on about our complementary article: Do European countries need a Chief Scientific Adviser?

Featured image credit: European Commission

Anne Glover will take part of a series of sessions at the ESOF 2014 conference.

Go back to the Special Issue: ESOF2014


Sabine Louët

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