The post of chief scientific adviser to the European Commission was created by the current president—and may vanish when he steps down next year. The incumbent should be working to make sure that doesn’t happen, says James Wilsdon.
As she reflects on her first year in office, Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, has every reason to feel encouraged.
Within Brussels, she has established herself as a respected member of President José Manuel Barroso’s inner circle. On the European stage, she has become an effective advocate for the use of evidence in policymaking. And the research community sees her as an ally and advocate for science within the opaque structures of Commission bureaucracy.
Yet despite all this, the future of the CSA’s role is far from secure. Glover is a direct appointment of Barroso’s, and when his second term ends on 31 October 2014, she must also stand down. This puts Glover under some pressure, but also gives her the opportunity to leave a permanent mark on the Brussels system.
There are three main routes to ensuring that the post of CSA outlives Barroso. The first is to demonstrate its value to the president, his cabinet and the policy advisers that report to him. With a potentially vast remit—“to provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation”—but a team of just four staff, this requires Glover to be highly strategic in identifying and prioritising issues where she can make a difference.
Glover seems to have picked genetically modified crops as just such an issue. In the past six months, she has made several speeches about risk, uncertainty and new technologies, and has signalled her support for GM crops, in contrast to the precautionary tone that has characterised European policy over the past decade.
Genetically modified crops remain an emblematic issue on which many science policymakers seek to prove their credentials. But it’s far from clear that there will be significant shifts in political and public support for GM during the remainder of Glover’s tenure, so there is a danger that this becomes an exercise in raking over well-trodden ground.
Were I advising Glover, I would suggest she picks one or two emerging topics or high-profile controversies where she can help to anticipate and define the contours of policy and public debate over the next decade. This will also generate momentum within the Commission for a successor to be appointed, to advance agendas that Glover has put in place. The success of John Beddington, the UK government’s CSA, in drawing attention to the ‘perfect storm’ of food, energy and water insecurity, for both domestic and international audiences, is a useful example of this approach.
A second route by which Glover can give a Brussels CSA a firmer foothold is by encouraging EU member states to appoint CSAs of their own. Today, only the UK, Ireland and the Czech Republic have formal CSAs, but Glover has been lobbying other governments to follow suit, and there are signs that she is succeeding, with Norway and Slovakia among the handful of states set to announce CSA appointments in the next few months.
This reflects a rising tide of international enthusiasm for the UK-US model of a CSA. New CSAs have been appointed in Ireland, New Zealand, and of course in Brussels, and are now being considered not only in other EU states, but also in Japan and at the UN. Glover can help shape this growing network, encouraging CSAs to exchange ideas and lessons, and identifying opportunities for collaboration.
Finally, Glover needs to broaden her external support base, by becoming a champion not only for the natural sciences but for all that Europe’s research community has to offer to policy. A good adviser recognises the importance of politics in science, in shaping what counts as evidence and authority, as much as the importance of science in politics.
Whether in relation to risk, climate change, GM crops, or the many emerging technologies and topics on which Glover can engage, she needs to demonstrate her openness to the contribution that different perspectives make to an effective advisory system, including those of the arts, humanities and social sciences, but also civil society and the wider public. Her recent remarks at the University of Sussex about the crucial role of the social sciences in translating expertise into policy were encouraging in this regard.
By all accounts, Glover has made an excellent start. As she settles into her second, possibly penultimate, year in the job, she has established herself as an impressive, thoughtful and persuasive ambassador for science and evidence within the European Commission. It is in all our interests that her role survives into 2015 and beyond.
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James Wilsdon is professor of science and democracy at SPRU—Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex.