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Why it made sense to scrap the post of chief scientific adviser

The CSA post added an extra layer to EU scientific advice that muddied the waters between science and politics, argues Doug Parr.

Given the heavy presence of lobbyists in EU politics, society needs broad-based and open evidence gathering to act as a bulwark against policy stitch-ups in favour of vested interests. A real worry for civil society organisations is that, simply in terms of lobbying muscle, corporate lobbyists are always going to win out against those acting in the public interest. Rigorous science processes are therefore needed as a defence.

In the recent debate over whether Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, should have renewed the post of chief scientific adviser previously held by Anne Glover, those who equated support for the post with progressive positions on evidence and policy-making should take notice of who they were siding with. A powerful early supporter of a renewed CSA position was Business Europe. This lobby group’s other desires include a hit list of laws on gender equality, environmental protection and product safety.

The EU already has a vast amount of science advice and evidence-gathering capability. The Joint Research Centre and the European Environment Agency produce a great deal of evidence and reports, both at the Commission’s request and independently, and existing directorates have numerous advisory committees.

Yet across the Commission there is variability in the quality of science used in policy-making, and this needs to receive far more attention. There may be a case for a centralised audit function to scrutinise science processes, but the CSA post was neither designed nor equipped to address this. Instead, it added another layer (or centre of power) to scientific advice that functioned in a flawed way. Having this extra source of advice confused responsibilities and mandates, making it unclear who was in charge, and where the crossover lay between science and policy processes.

Take the example of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. In June 2013, Glover received a letter from a group of scientists expressing concern about the process for identifying such chemicals. More than half of the signatories had links to industries that would be affected by the regulation of EDCs.

In the next few days, Glover wrote to the director-
general of the Commission’s environment directorate asking for “factual information to allow [her] to respond” to the critique. However, the note was copied to several senior decision-makers within the Commission, including the secretary-general and president José Manuel Barroso’s head of cabinet, and described the authors of the letter as being “very eminent experts”.

Two weeks later, the Commission’s secretary-general decided to delay the process of defining the criteria to identify EDCs. The letter’s authors dropped their opposition when they faced experts working for the Commission at a meeting organised by Glover in October 2013. But by then, the Commission process had been halted.

In this example, the CSA’s intervention added strong political content to a science-based discussion. It also bypassed scientific institutional processes, presented the signatories to the letter as authorities on the issue, and created the impression that there was significant scientific controversy about the definition of endocrine disruptors when there was not.

I am in no way suggesting bad faith on Glover’s part, but all of this highlights the unclear mandate and relationship with other Commission processes of someone who is apparently senior but has no resources. There was clearly an intrinsic difficulty in the role as it was created. 

Following the controversy over the CSA post, a group of non-governmental organisations collectively developed a set of principles for science advice that were not prescriptive about the structure to be adopted. The main principles are: transparency of advice; clarity of the relationship between science advice and political choices; clarity of roles and relationships in evidence-gathering and appraisal; independence from financial interests; full explanation of policy decisions, and the role of science advice in coming to those decisions; and public funding for information of public value. Other, overarching principles are that the public should be involved in framing questions and that explicit attention should be paid to uncertainties and knowledge gaps.

There is much to be done to establish a healthy relationship between the scientific activity by EU research institutes and the policy-making apparatus. The CSA post muddied the waters rather than helping, and its abolition is an opportunity for a thorough appraisal of how these relationships can be better organised. Public involvement, transparency and independence must be central to any future arrangements.

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Doug Parr is the chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace UK. This is an edited extract from Future Directions for Scientific Advice in Europe, edited by Robert Doubleday and James Wilsdon, and published on 27 April.

This article also appeared in Research Europe