This week has been an exciting one for European science, with the European Space Agency’s Philae lander making what appears to have been a successful landing on Comet 67P. But the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker chose this moment of celebration to make a disappointing announcement. The role of the Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission is to be abolished.
The role, which has been held by Anne Glover since 2012, is currently the commission’s main source of independent scientific advice. During her time in the role, Glover has worked hard to ensure that advice presented to the commission is firmly backed by evidence. She has also engaged European scientists in EU politics and has helped the research community contribute to policy making at the European level.
The CSA’s role has been fundamental in giving European lawmakers access to scientists’ evidence base, according to Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science. She said: “In the face of European policy challenges in energy, food production, pest and disease control and much else, this has been a huge step forward. What a wasteful and regrettable situation that the new Commission could be turning its back.”
The role gained much attention earlier this year, when Greenpeace and eight other environmental lobby groups wrote to Juncker, then president-elect, calling for it to be scrapped. The campaign groups, famous for their views opposing genetic modification of crops, alleged that too much power was held by one person. Anne Glover had earlier published a report saying that “GMOs are no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.”
Soon after, Juncker received another letter, coordinated by Sense About Science and co-signed by 40 organisations and 773 individuals advocating evidence-based advice. These organisations, which included the Institute of Food Research, Rothamsted Research, the Society of Biology and the Campaign for Science and Engineering, urged the commission to keep this crucial role, citing the importance of “scientifically accurate and rigorous advice … given freely and without fear or favour.” Another letter was sent by the European Plant Science Organisation, signed by the John Innes Centre’s Cathie Martin among others.
The scientific community has reacted with disappointment at the news, especially as it had appeared originally that Juncker would keep the role.
“When asked as President Elect, Mr Juncker said ‘yes’, he would keep the very important role of European CSA,” said Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. “Later his office said that he valued independent scientific advice but would have to think about how to source it. I urge him and the 28 science ministers from across Europe to ensure that those with experience of the challenges of the role, notably Anne Glover herself, advise on how to permanently establish robust independent scientific advice in the Commission.”
Nigel Brown, president of the Society for General Microbiology was “appalled” at the news. “Many of the major challenges facing Europe – climate change, food security, healthy ageing, disease control – require scientific input to policy at the very highest level,” he said. “This is disastrously short-sighted.”
The president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, described the news as a “backward step”. He said: “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.”
Nurse hopes the commission will continue to listen to scientific evidence in other ways, adding: “Otherwise they will encourage those who portray the commission as out of touch and not willing to listen to informed advice.”
Mabon Elis is a second year PhD student at the John Innes Centre. He tweets as @mabonrhun.
Quotes collected by the Science Media Centre.