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July 2012

"Now there's a science voice in the room"

We were delighted that Professor Anne Glover, the first ever Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) for the President of the European Union, joined us for our session Scientific Advice for European Policy at the EuroScience Open forum in Dublin in July. After a busy few days at ESOF, Julia shares some of her thoughts on the session:

CSAs ESOF 2012Getting good science and evidence at the heart of policy making is vital. Recent incidents (volcanic ash, swine flu, Fukushima) have shown us the need for policy makers to quickly get to grips with the science so they can react quickly to urgent situations. Our discussion at ESOF was our chance to examine how integral a chief scientist is to this and to discuss opportunities for a more collaborative approach across Europe.

I was interested to hear from the chief scientists about the conflicts in their roles – their job is certainly a balancing act. Irish Chief Scientist Professor Patrick Cunningham told us that chief scientists need to be cautious about being pushed into a celebrity position which would undermine the integrity of what they do. “A lot is expected of you as an individual, you are expected to know everything and areas far out of your experience. So you have to be confident but careful of exaggerated expectations, and rely on a network of people for good advice.”

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the New Zealand Chief Scientist, was also quick to define the boundaries of his role, “a chief scientist is not a lobbyist for science. We help the Government use science [...] and make sure that trade-offs are based on knowledge rather than political rhetoric.”

Professor Glover reports directly to President Barroso (of the European Union) and does this alone. Once she’s briefed Barroso on an issue, he then has to peruade all the other European Union member states to follow his decision – it is hard work and takes time. Professor Glover told us that she wants to build a network of advisors in other countries but this will not be an easy thing to do as many member states do not have CSAs in place. Glover was previously the CSA to the Scottish Government. I was interested to hear her and Professor Nils Stenseth’s (President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters) comments on the benefits of working in a small country, where everyone knows each other and things can happen quickly.

We all know that scientists need to engage with the public and policy makers. The panellists urged the scientific community to do more and speak directly with policy makers on urgent issues. Michiel Kolman, Senior Vice President of Global Academic Relations at Elsevier contributed from the audience with some interesting metrics showing that Europe is really punching above its weight in scientific publishing: 7% of the global population are from Europe, 20% of the world’s scientists are from Europe, and 40% of journal articles are produced by Europe. But Glover felt that in fact as Europeans we are too modest. If we want to use more evidence in policy making in Europe, scientists need to be making sure that politicians know how good Europe is at research.

Professor Nils Stenseth emphasised the importance of scientists communicating clearly about scientific uncertainty to the public and policy makers – particularly in climate change research.  Professor Glover agreed “talking about risk and uncertainty is a hard thing to do” and she suggested scientists should talk more in terms of the balance of risks and benefits.  

Gail Cardew (Head of Programmes at the Royal Institution) raised from the audience the point that public trust in science is often seen as either a good or a bad thing. Surely the rise in questions from the public is a good thing and not something to shut down? Professor Glover agreed – “I want the public to be enquiring of me [...] I always try and give as much information as possible and be transparent”. I agree that a questioning public is an involved and democratic one. But more importantly they need access to the evidence and the right questions to ask.

Panel ESOF 2012Chief scientists have the potential to influence important policy decisions including the introduction of new technologies, such as GM crops. Several audience members including a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency of Ireland, questioned the panel about what they were doing in regards to GM technologies. The panel discussed how the scrutiny involved in peer review and integrity of science gives strength to their voice and they all felt this integrity was important to maintain public trust in emerging technologies. Sir Peter Gluckman felt that debate about GM is often a proxy for a debate that is not actually about science. “The primary GM debate is about politics and beliefs. We must be clear about the nature of a debate.”

The overall feeling among the panellists was that their role was to ensure science and evidence was at the heart of decision making in policy, but that their influence can, and should, only go so far. In the audience a representative of the US National Academy of Sciences felt that on the whole advisors don’t want to get their hands dirty. He asked “at what point do they step away from the debate?” I think Professor Glover’s response was a clear reflection of the role: “No-one voted for me. Politicians have been voted for by the public. At the end of the day, they will choose how much evidence to use in policy making [...] and if they choose to ignore the evidence that is their decision. What is important is that they are transparent and explain why they are ignoring the evidence.”

I agree with Professor Glover. Politicians must weigh up the evidence but they will also need to take into account many other social, economic and political influences. It should be fine for a politician to say “I’m going against the evidence” as long as they say so and explain their reasons for doing it. Professor Anne Glover’s presence in the office of the President of the European Union has the potential to ensure more informed, evidence-based policy making across Europe and equip politicians to react well in urgent situations. I feel quite optimistic!