EU chief scientist role abolished: what does this mean for evidence-based policy in Europe?

The European Commission (EC) has confirmed that the position of EU Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), held by Professor Anne Glover since 2012, is to be abolished. Former President of the EC, José Barroso, created the role in September 2012 to provide independent scientific advice directly to the President. But the new President, Jean-Claude Juncker, has chosen not seek a replacement for Professor Glover when she departs in January.

The CSA holds the most senior scientific role in Europe. They have responsibilities to provide regular updates and advice on scientific issues to the EC President. They are also responsible for building relationships between the EC and high-level scientific advisory groups and to increase public confidence in science and technology. With the EC yet to state what mechanism the CSA will be replaced with for the provision of independent scientific advice, experts across the European science community have expressed disappointment at the latest news from Brussels.

Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of The Royal Society, said:

“This appears to be a very backward step by the new Commission, having only made the enlightened decision to raise the profile of scientific advice three years ago. Scientific advice must be central to EU policy making, otherwise you run the risk of having important decisions being unduly influenced by those with mixed motives.”

Professor Ian Boyd, Defra Chief Scientific Adviser, added:

“The importance of this role for science cannot be overstated. I want to pay tribute to Anne Glover for her leadership. She has been a tireless advocate for the voice of science at the centre of government.”

Professor Glover had previously talked of her surprise of the appetite for scientific advice in Brussels. However, she cited frustration at dealing with in-house politics and challenges in disentangling scientific evidence from the “political imperative”.

The position of CSA had been under scrutiny for some months as some environmental organisations – most notably Greenpeace, which elaborated on its position here – wrote on open letter that called into question the need for a CSA because the role “concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates.”

The nine organisations appear to have taken a particular aversion to Professor Glover’s stance on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by stating that “the current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of GMOs in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety whereas this claim is contradicted by an international statement of scientists.”

This led to a ‘war of letters’, with a response letter signed by forty scientific organisations and 773 individuals being sent to Juncker in support of the CSA role. A further letter signed by the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK called for the role to be maintained and strengthened.

There is a risk that the controversy of this issue could damage science within Europe, led by deterioration in the relationships between science organisations and the EC. Attempts to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice provided to policy-makers will be perceived by many scientists as a downgrading of the value of science advice in Europe.

EU policy makers regularly battle over the strength of scientific evidence, for instance the impact of neonicotinoids on pollinators or the impact of biofuel crops on food prices, and lobbyists and non-governmental organisations regularly seek to influence political decisions. In the absence of a CSA role, campaigners for greater transparency fear that policy-makers will increasingly exclude scientists because they do not agree with their advice.

With President Juncker not yet decided on whether to replace the role of CSA, the power of evidence to trump lobbying and the future of evidence-based policy remains uncertain.