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Commission bids Glover a silent farewell

Researchers call for clarification as CSA post is left to expire

A tense relationship between the European Commission and the chief scientific adviser to its president ended in unceremonious fashion this month, as Anne Glover was quietly relieved of her duties.

Glover’s mandate as CSA expired with the tenure of president José Manuel Barroso on 31 October, but her contract with the Commission lasts until February. However, on 11 November, she received an email informing her that the function of the CSA had ceased to exist, meaning she was free to leave if she wished.

Glover’s departure was expected, but many observers were hoping that the incoming president Jean-Claude Juncker would appoint an immediate successor. Instead, they say, the developments show that science advice is not high on Juncker’s agenda. “It’s a combination of indifference and being too busy—it’s a low priority,” says James Wilsdon, of the Science Policy Research Unit at the UK’s University of Sussex.

This conclusion is seemingly supported by the explanation from a Commission spokeswoman, who says that the CSA post has “simply expired” and the president has “not yet decided” how to deal with independent scientific advice.

According to a Brussels source, Glover sent numerous messages to Juncker after he was elected to make the case for the CSA post to be continued, including requests for meetings. However, she received no reply. This illustrates the frosty nature of the relationship between the CSA and the Commission—a matter on which Glover has spoken frankly in recent months.

“The most worrying aspect of this was the cursory way in which it was dealt with,” says Wilsdon. “I thought they might take longer to reach a decision, and spend time talking to people. But Juncker refused to engage in a serious way with Glover, which strikes me as utterly self-defeating.” 

As the news broke, research leaders expressed their annoyance that the CSA post was not being renewed. “This sends a signal that science and its role in policymaking has been downgraded at a time when Europe needs to do all it can to support innovation through an effective, realist and evidence-led policy framework,” said Mark Downs, the chief executive of the UK’s Society of Biology.

Others linked Glover’s departure to her support for genetic modification, following a campaign by environmental groups to have the CSA post abolished. But according to Wilsdon: “Characterising this as some sort of anti-science agenda from the Juncker presidency is incorrect—there’s no evidence of that.”

On 14 November, the European Academies Science Advisory Council asked Juncker to clarify his intentions. This was echoed in a statement from Paul Nurse, the president of the UK’s Royal Society, who said: “If the Commission has a plausible plan for ensuring that scientific evidence will be taken seriously, it needs to start sharing it with people soon, otherwise it will encourage those who portray the Commission as out of touch and not willing to listen to informed advice.”

Some believe that Glover’s position should be reinstated, but others argue that the Anglo-American model of an individual CSA is not tenable in Europe, where committees are usually employed to offer collective advice at both the national and EU levels. “Europe is not a single monarchy, and if you don’t have a network you cannot accomplish much,” says Jerzy Langer, a member of the Polish Academy of Sciences. “Glover is a superb individual, but she didn’t have much influence.”

Both options remain open to Juncker. “The way he formulated the email to Anne leaves him plenty of room to say: ‘I never said there wouldn’t be a CSA’,” says the Brussels source. “He could claim there’s been a huge misunderstanding.”

It is also possible that Juncker will do nothing, believing he has the right structures in place already. “He could just ignore it, as he has ignored all previous debates on the CSA, and delay a decision until nobody’s asking for it any more,” says the source. “It’s a very popular political tactic.”

This article also appeared in Research Europe