Death certain, hour uncertain

uhrFollowing last week’s blog in which I talked about risk, I want to talk today about a closely related subject: uncertainty. The only certain thing in life is that it’s deadly. The rest, up to the exact timing of death, is uncertain. This makes life thrilling, but also somewhat uncomfortable.

As we all know, uncertainty is inherent to the scientific enterprise – actually, it’s the raison d’être of science. By exploring the unknown we want to reduce the uncertainty about the world around us. But scientific results will always come with uncertainty, not least because we are humans. Even the most accurate science has always an error margin, which may depend on the precision of the instrument used and, of course, our own interpretation of the result.

In other words, scientists embrace uncertainty and they see it as their mission to reduce it as much as possible by generating new knowledge. Politicians are different. They don’t like uncertainty, many of them even hate it. The reason why many politicians ask scientists for their advice is precisely because they want to get answers that are certain, in order to underpin political decisions. So they don’t want an answer like “the result could be a or b”, but expect scientists to give them a helping hand and provide clear guidance. This is a difficult task, not least because many political decisions are about the future, which by nature is uncertain.

How to communicate uncertainty to politicians is one of the big enigmas of the science-policy relationship. Here I would like to give a few recommendations. First, we need to communicate that such a thing like uncertainty exists and that even the best advice will not provide 100% certainty. The advice provided by scientists can make the lives of politicians easier, e.g. by reducing uncertainty as far as possible, but the final decision will always be with the politician and there is a certain likelihood that he or she will get it wrong, even if following the advice.

Possible paths of Hurricane Sandy (2012)
Possible paths of Hurricane Sandy (2012)

Second, we should not be afraid of communicating uncertainty. Actually, there are many areas in which citizens are already used to deal with uncertainty information, for instance the rainfall probability of tomorrow’s weather forecast. Also when it comes to natural hazards – the potential path(s) of a hurricane, the 1 in a 100 years flood or earthquake – uncertainty statements can often be found in the media. So the scientific concept as such is familiar to most people.

Still, although scientists love to quantify uncertainty, politicians are not interested in whether the uncertainty is 8.2 or 11.7. They want to know in plain language how sure we are (“I am taking a shot in the dark here” versus “I am highly confident that this is going to happen”). This type of language can be found, for instance, in the IPCC reports which are a perfect example of how to communicate uncertainty. The answer to the “How sure are you?” question will help politicians to get an idea of how far they can rely on the evidence and whether they can be attacked on it (also from scientific circles who do not believe in the mainstream scientific opinion!). High certainty strengthens the weight of the evidence, whereas low certainty weakens the case for science to be considered.

Even more important, politicians want to know what the uncertainty means. Does it mean that in the worst case it may cost me a million bucks more or does it mean the potential end of life on this planet as we know it? This information is important, for instance, when assessing risks and discussing the possible application of precautionary measures. This is a point where politicians expect guidance from the scientific community. So don’t focus so much on the numbers, but on the story behind the numbers.

ozone hole
The ozone hole: Strong scientific consensus has provoked political action

Uncertainty also has its positive side. In particular, it gives politicians a room of maneuver as in most cases the uncertainty will allow for the development of various policy options without ignoring the science. Which option to choose is then of course up to the political bargaining. Where it becomes problematic is when politicians choose to go for a policy which goes against a highly certain evidence. Science skeptics – such as climate skeptics – often use uncertainty to underpin their cause or to discredit science (“you are not sure, so why take action”, “this is still within the natural variability” etc.). The best way to tackle this is to talk more about scientific consensus. In fact, there is a great deal of consensus out there on many issues. However, scientists often forget to communicate consensus because it’s incredibly boring for them. Scientists rather like to discuss where they disagree, around the edges of the consensus. This necessary scientific debate is then used by some politicians as an excuse to disregard science. But there are plenty of examples where a strong, united voice by science communicating consensus has actually led to political action – the ozone hole is perhaps the most prominent case.

As many people know, I am a Trekkie, and in the movie Star Trek IV (1986) there is a wonderful dialogue between a decision-maker (James T. Kirk), a scientist (Mr Spock) and a doctor (Bones McCoy):

Spock: Mr. Scott cannot give me exact figures, Admiral. So I will….. make a guess.

Kirk:       A guess? From you, Spock? That’s extraordinary!

Spock to Bones: I don’t think he understands.

Bones: No, Spock. It means he feels safer about your guesses than about most other people’s facts.

Spock: Then I will try to make the best guess I can.

I think this is the best we can do as scientists: in the presence of uncertainty to deliver the best, honest, educated guess we can, based on our knowledge and expertise. This does not mean that our guess will always be correct. After all, also scientists are humans (not all of them are vulcans…). But the chances of getting it right are always higher when following an educated guess rather than a gut feeling.


We are all chickens

It’s time to share a bit more my experiences from talking to colleagues here in the US. One issue that comes up again and again is how Europe and the US are approaching risk, for example related to new technologies. In Europe, I often heard comments like “If Europeans weren’t so risk-averse, Europe would be much more competitive” or “The Americans have a much more risk-taking attitude than we have”. But is this true?

My first observation is that we should be careful with generalized statements. The US can be incredibly risk-averse, e.g. when it comes to stem cell research, while Europe can be seen as very risk-taking – take for instance the multi-billion Euro investment in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. In fact, you cannot even talk about “the US” and “Europe”. If you look closely, both Europe and the US are incredibly fragmented if you study the approach taken towards any given technology in any State or Member State.

To explain myself: Make a map of the pro- and anti-GMO countries in Europe. Put next to it a map of pro- and anti-nuclear countries. Put next to it a map of pro- and anti-fracking countries. They will all look different. And the result cannot be explained with just North vs. South or Catholic vs. Protestant. Then make the same exercise with the US. Again, you will get very patchy maps and they seem to have nothing to do with coast vs. interior or Bible Belt vs. not Bible Belt. In fact, issues that are discussed very controversially in Europe, are also discussed very controversially in the US, fracking being one example. The debates have different connotations perhaps – the religious aspect being more prominent in the US – but in essence we are discussing the same issues.

US state policies on stem cell research (Source:
US state policies on stem cell research (Source:

The reasons why certain countries or even parts of countries (see England vs. Scotland on GMOs!) approve or reject a technology lies much deeper. Culture and/or religion certainly have an impact (take the relationship of French people to food), but often it boils down to socio-economic stakes. This explains for instance why Poland with its big shale gas resources is very happy with fracking while it rejects GMOs. The national media landscape has a role to play (Austria is a typical example, where public opinion is largely influenced by tabloid newspapers), but also institutional set-ups and political traditions matter.

However, and I am aware of the risk of generalizing here, there are differences between Europe and the US. They are essentially rooted in what I would call “the myths on which our nations are built”. The US is still very much coined by the “Go West” spirit of its founding fathers and mothers. Explore the unknown, be fruitful and multiply, don’t ask what the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. In such a spirit taking risk is rewarded more easily than in Europe where nations carry around rucksacks filled with thousands of years of history with an implicit tendency of “we have always done it like this”.

How Europe sees itself

This does not mean that either side is more or less willing to take risks, but that in my view the effort to overcome the initial “societal inertia of mass” is higher in Europe than in the US. It’s the same inertia that stops many European SMEs from becoming quickly global players like Facebook, Twitter or Google. In Europe we rather tend to trust companies that have been around for hundred or more years (which does not necessarily mean that they deserve this trust). Would Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have founded their companies in European garages? Probably not because European garages are for parking cars and not for starting world revolutions. In the US, if you haven’t gone bankrupt at least twice you are not even considered an entrepreneur, while in Europe after the first bankruptcy you will have difficulties to find anybody lending you money again (I am exaggerating here to make my point). Again, this has regional variations and the entrepreneurial spirit is likely to be higher in, say, Milan or Turin than in Rome or Naples, due to a number of reasons. Again, I am not talking here about taking more or less risk, but about the societal recognition we give to the one taking the risk, which in my view on average is higher in the US than in Europe, despite the regional differences.

Such underlying philosophies have their impact on institutions and political processes. Essentially, in the US if there is a new technology coming on the market the relevant authority will assess whether it is safe or not. If it is determined safe, politicians will debate whether they want it or not. In Europe things are a bit more messy, as the political discussion will already start at the “Is it safe?” level, inevitably messing up science with politics. This has also something to do with the trust we put in institutions, be they public or private. Again, this is an issue where I notice EU/US differences.

This does not mean that decisions in the US are more evidence-based than in Europe, though. When bringing my kids to school in Boulder I am always amazed to see all the measures in place to ensure a safe way to school for the kids (flashing lights indicating that cars need to go slower in school areas, no passing of school buses allowed when these are stopping etc.), while it is perfectly normal to see the kids rushing around on their bikes after nightfall without any lights or protective helmets on, and I am not even talking here about kids having access to guns stored in their parents’ homes. The selective perception of risk in the US certainly does not follow any logic and is not much different than in Europe. So don’t think that the American approach to things is any more rational than the European one. After all, we are humans and not vulcans!

Dangerous, yet socially accepted chemical: caffeine

As in Europe, also in the US there are many factors influencing political decisions and science is just one of them. This leads sometimes to political decisions being very evidence-based, and sometimes to policies going against the evidence. If policies would be based on evidence only, gun laws in the US would look different. German autobahns would have a speed limit. Chinese would have different air pollution laws. And we all know that coffee, if invented today, would never be authorized both in Europe and the US because caffeine is quite a nasty psychoactive chemical. I could give many more examples. But life is not like this and we have to acknowledge that the societal acceptability of issues and, hence, legislation does not always follow the evidence (after all, we are not dominated by scientists!).

However, one result of the above are different standards and thresholds in legislation as evidence is interpreted differently or sometimes ignored altogether. This has the potential to hamper international trade. Those protesting in Europe against the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) often voice their concern that TTIP would allow the “tough” European standards to be lowered to the supposedly weaker US standards. Apart from the fact that nobody has this intention, it is simply not true that the European standards are always tougher. In some areas they are, in others not. Europe is tougher on GMOs, hormones in beef, pesticides and greenhouse gas emissions, the US is tougher on air, water and soil pollution, food colouring, smoking and terrorism. Public authorities in the US are, by the way, tougher in prosecuting ethical misbehaviour of car manufacturers or international sports associations than their European counterparts.

This leads us inevitably to the icon of international trade, the chlorinated chicken. Both, Americans and Europeans are committed to maximum food safety. Americans clean the chicken in chlorine to get rid of all germs. It’s a safe – but not perfect – method and the food is safe to eat. Europeans prefer to treat their chicken with antibiotics to solve the germ problem. This is also a safe – but not perfect – method and the food is safe to eat (although it has an undesired side-effect, namely antibiotic resistance). Both methods are perfectly valid from a scientific point of view. What is different is the philosophy: Americans want that the product is safe when it lands on the plate (ex-post control), while Europeans are rather worried about how it gets there (ex-ante control). Both approaches are OK. Which one to choose is a political question, not a scientific one.

For further reading I recommend the study “The reality of precaution – Comparing risk regulation in the US and Europe”, published by the Delors Institute last year.

Ways to wisdom

In today’s blog post I would like to discuss the different institutional forms in which science advice can be delivered. The OECD report “Scientific Advice for Policy Making – The role and responsibility of expert bodies and individual scientists”, published in April 2015, distinguishes four different types of science advisers:

  • Science policy advisory committees or councils
  • Permanent or ad-hoc scientific/technical advisory structures
  • Academies, professional societies and research organizations
  • Individual scientific advisers and counsellors

Before discussing these different options in detail, we need to be clear about three concepts:

  • Science for policy versus policy for science. As the term “science policy” can be misleading, it is necessary to make this distinction. Science for policy is about advising sectorial policies, that is environment, agriculture, health, foreign policies etc. Policy for science is something different: this term refers to research policies in the strict sense of the word, aimed at supporting and organizing the generation of knowledge. It includes, for instance, research funding and research infrastructures. The only overlap between the two is in the R&D domain. For example, designing a funding instrument for research is policy for science. Providing a study on the likely impact this instrument is going to have is science for policy. Unfortunately, the two dimensions are frequently mixed up. When working for the former Commission Chief Scientific Adviser Anne Glover I often came across national science ministers who believed that science advice in their country had been sorted by having a body advising them on research policies. So let’s be clear: when we talk about scientific advice to policy-making, we talk about science for policy, not policy for science.
  • Formal advice versus informal advice. Any government that is committed to evidence-informed policy-making has formalized processes in place to ensure that scientific evidence makes its way into legislation. This can have different forms, from involving scientists from the very beginning of the policy process to consulting them in the frame of stakeholder consultations to procuring scientific studies via public tenders. All contributions are formally documented and may even be referred to in legislative documents. Formal advice usually works at weekly to monthly, sometimes yearly, time scales. In contrast, informal advice is when a politician grabs the phone and calls a scientist of his/her choice to ask for his/her opinion. This happens in particular when a quick assessment is needed either “now”, “this afternoon” or “within the next 24 hours”. It is to be noted that informal advice can never replace a formal advisory process. It can however expedite the take-up of science in the political process.
  • Scientific support to policy versus scientific advice to politics. This is a concept which has not yet really found its way into the teaching books, but I think it is important to make this distinction. Scientific support to policy is the nitty-gritty stuff, i.e. when scientists provide technical reports, check whether the numbers in the legislation are correct, whether the thresholds indicated are actually useful and measurable and the references given reflect the state of the art. This support happens at the technical level and the counterpart of the scientist is usually the desk officer in the government department who was asked by his/her political masters to draft a piece of legislation. Scientific advice to politics is different and has totally different dynamics: it is not about putting the numbers into the legislation and often not even about checking them, it is about explaining what the numbers mean, with the aim not only of convincing the politician of the evidence, but also of helping him/her to defend the evidence in public. In this case the counterpart of the scientist is an elected politician, e.g. a Minister or a Member of Parliament.

It is very important to have these concepts in mind when talking about the different types of science advisers as the different types tick different boxes. So let’s have a look at these types.

The President's Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC) of the previous European Commission
The President’s Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC) of the previous European Commission

First, advisory committees or councils. Such committees can either be permanent or ad-hoc and are usually set up for a very specific task, for instance advising on emerging health risks or the ethical implications of new technologies. Advisory committees are mostly filled with external experts – from academies, industry or civil society. Usually they are not paid for their advice, but just receive their travel costs reimbursed. The advice provided by advisory committees is formal and on record. While most advisory committees advise policy-makers, there are also a few ones advising politicians. The most prominent example is the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) in the United States, which had a counterpart in the President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) in the previous European Commission. The High-level Group currently being set up by the Commission under the Science Advisory Mechanism – replacing STAC as well as the former Chief Scientific Adviser – will serve the College of Commissioners, i.e. is also aimed at supporting the political level of the Commission.

An example in the EU Member States is the National Science & Technology Council of Portugal (CNCT) whose mission is to “provide advice to the government on transversal matters related to science and technology with the aim to define national mid- to long-term policies and strategies.” Its mission is to “advise on the definition of science & technology policies, the promotion of excellence in science, technology and education, the internationalization of Portuguese science, the interministerial articulation of science, technology and innovation policies, and scientific advice to the development of policies and public services in all areas of government.” This mission very clearly mixes science for policy with policy for science – as the Council reports to the Science Minister, it is easy to guess which of the two topics prevails.

This shows one of the main problems of “general science advice” type of committees: unless it is clearly stated that they are not supposed to comment on research policies, they tend to devote significant time to research policies or general why-science-is-important type of issues, rather than advising on other sectorial policies. Another problem of committee-type solutions is that they only meet once in a while (with members frequently missing half of the meeting due to delayed flights or early departures). Also, for being external to the body they are advising, it usually takes members quite some time to get to grips with the legal and institutional constraints of the organization they are advising. Therefore, a Committee-type solution necessarily depends on a highly efficient, capable Secretariat that bridges the times inbetween meetings and prepares these so well that committee members can use their limited time wisely. If the conditions are right, however, committees can be very useful, in particular because they are independent of the body they are advising and are thus less likely to shy away from inconvenient messages, while still being small enough to allow consensus opinions.

The European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) with its infrastructures plays a key role in providing scientific-technical support to European policies
The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) plays a key role in providing scientific-technical support to European policies

Second, permanent or ad-hoc scientific/technical advisory structures. What is meant here are, for instance, internal science services (like the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre JRC), agencies and public authorities (like the European Food Safety Authority EFSA or the US Environmental Protection Agency) or similar public bodies, such as research institutes that depend directly from sectorial ministries (like the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment BfR or the National Institute of Standards and Technology NIST in the US). These bodies are usually heavy weights with a strong reputation and strong institutional capabilities. Another big advantage is their direct access to policy-makers, being the preferred point to call by policy-makers, either because this relationship is written into legislation or based on joint work programmes or simply because they are perceived by policy-makers as being “part of the family”. Their job is essentially to do the nitty-gritty scientific-technical support, often combined with formal regulatory tasks.

The proximity to the policy-making machinery makes them understand the needs of policy-makers well and enables them to deliver tailor-made support within the required time frames. The same proximity, however, means that they are not always perceived as being entirely independent. Critics sometimes voice that due to political pressure inconvenient messages might get down-toned or delayed until when politically better suited. In fact, while their science certainly is independent – as it is peer-reviewed by the scientific community – such scientific-technical advisory structures often have to adapt to the programmatic priorities of their political masters (except in areas where they carry out regulatory tasks). Still, they would not have the reputation they have if their advice would be seen as biased. There is no case in Europe where such an organization plays a formal role of being “the” government science adviser, except perhaps for the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. In most cases these organizations do not provide advice to government in general, but rather to the Ministry they happen to report to.

Academy organizations like the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) play an increasing role in advising European policies
Academy organizations like the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) play an increasing role in advising European policies

Third, academies, professional societies and research organizations. The big advantage of academies of science is their independence and impeccable scientific reputation due to rigorous procedures. Academies and learned societies have the possibility to tap into a large pool of eminent experts across a wide range of disciplines (which does not mean that these are among the most interdisciplinary thinkers), which makes their advice credible and well respected in public. In some EU Member States academies of science play a formal role as government science advisers, as is the case in Austria, Hungary and Poland, and, to a lesser but growing extent, in Germany. Also the US National Academy of Science is a well-respected voice in government circles. A certain handicap of academies is that their membership tends to be a) male and b) old, which makes them less open for “crazy” ideas that challenge well-established views. Academies are well aware of this deficiency and try to tackle it by establishing, for instance, young academies. Another problem is a certain disconnectedness of the academies of the political process in many countries which leads sometimes to brilliant reports being delivered after a related political decision has been taken. The science academies in Europe are working hard to tackle this issue and their link to the European Commission’s new Science Advisory Mechanism will hopefully be an example to follow.

While academies with their centuries of history and real estate are powerful actors, other learned/professional societies are rather weak. I am referring here to all those Associations/Federations/Societies of XYZ-logists/-nomers/-graphers/-ists/-ticians whose budgets largely depend on individual membership contributions. They face the same institutional and financial constraints like advocacy NGOs and in fact, most of them do not have an office in Brussels or even a European roof organization that could represent them in European policy-making. However, they can provide very valuable advice, in particular as many of them play a key role in organizing citizen science (guiding hobby bird or sky watchers, for instance). Other research organizations, such as research universities or extra-university institutes and their associations frequently deliver advice that is highly relevant at the technical level (often via contracts), but less heard at the political level (unless when it is about policy for science) because their sheer number makes their advice often disappear in the “background noise”, except when picked up by the media or cherry-picked by a politician who uses a scientific statement to underpin his/her view of the world.

The Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand Professor Sir Peter Gluckman
The Chief Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand Sir Peter Gluckman

Fourth, individual scientific advisers and counselors. Here I refer to my previous blog post about the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Adviser. This model is particularly popular in the “Anglo-Saxon” World, especially in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and India. The particular strength of this model is the one single number a politician has to dial in order to get prompt scientific advice, 24/7 all year round. It also gives a publicly visible (and accountable) face to science, which is helpful for public debate. While usually being backed by an office of 5-50 people, the individual science adviser, however, can never replace the technical scientific support provided to policy by other science advisory bodies. He or she is an evidence translator, not an evidence provider. Of course, the individual adviser cannot be an expert in all scientific fields. But he or she knows whom to ask and is able to judge whether scientific evidence is sound. For this reason individual advisers can also play an important role as a “watchdog” for the integrity of the government’s science advisory system.

None of the above mentioned models trumps the others. In fact, due to their individual advantages and disadvantages it is normal to find a mixture of various types in any given science advisory system. The best suited model(s) will always depend on the respective institutional landscape and history as well as political and societal traditions and priorities. The important point is to have an independent science advisory system in place with clearly defined roles and procedures.

The Chief Scientific Adviser: Results of an experiment

Yesterday I had the pleasure to give a lecture to the crowd here at the Center for Science & Technology Policy Research. I presented my insights after three years of working with the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Adviser, complementing the presentation given by my former boss at the global science adviser meeting last year. In the following I want to summarize my talk (attention: this blog will be a bit longer than usual!).

When President Barroso suggested creating the post of Chief Scientific Adviser in September 2009, the idea had already been discussed in various circles. This included the EPC report “Enhancing the role of science in the decision-making of the European Union” published in 2005, the FP6 ex-post evaluation of the Joint Research Centre chaired by Sir David King in 2008, a public statement made by Sir John Beddington (David King’s successor as UK Chief Scientific Adviser) in March 2009, and the report “Preparing Europe for a New Renaissance – A Strategic View for the European Research Area” published by the European Research Area Board (again, with the involvement of David King) in autumn 2009.

2_bigBarroso announced the creation of the post in his re-election speech in the European Parliament on 15 September 2009, in which he also announced to appoint a Commissioner for Internal Affairs and Migration, a Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Civil Liberties, and a Commissioner for Climate Action. The reasoning behind these announcements was certainly political – Barroso needed to convince at least three Parliamentary Groups to vote for him – but he certainly would not have made the proposal if he would not have been convinced of the advantages these may bring to his mandate.

Shortly after the announcement I developed together with a colleague a paper called “A Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to the European Commission: Background, requirements and options for implementation”, which discussed the potential mandate of the CSA, but also analyzed different alternatives for implementation with a senior adviser attached to the President being the preferred option. This paper was sent to the Secretary-General, who apparently also received suggestions from other sources, such as the European Risk Forum.

DSCN1178Afterwards it took two years until a Chief Scientific Adviser – the then CSA to the Scottish Government Professor Anne Glover – was finally appointed and her mandate outlined in a Commission press release:

  • To provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the President;
  • Upon a request by the President, to provide analysis and opinion on major policy proposals being submitted to the College touching upon issues of science, technology and innovation; in particular the Chief Scientific Advisor will provide authoritative guidance on interpretation of scientific evidence in presence of uncertainty, and will be involved in strategic emergency planning [Note: this part of the mandate never materialized];
  • To build relationships with high-level advisory groups (e.g. European Research Area Board), the scientific Committees of the Commission, the EU agencies (European Medicine Agency, European Food Safety Authority, the European Chemicals Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control), the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies;
  • To build relationships with similar structures in Member States and other countries;
  • To advise on novel science, technology and innovation issues arising both in the context of the EU and internationally; to serve as an early warning conduct point on issues that might arise when scientific progress entails either opportunity or threat for the EU;
  • To communicate the scientific values on which specific Commission proposals are based in order to enhance public confidence in science and technology, and in general to promote the European culture of science and technology widely within Europe and abroad.

The role had therefore both an inward and outward facing dimension. The CSA reported directly to the President without any intermediaries (except for the President’s Cabinet) and was administratively embedded into the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA), the President’s group of advisers. While this set-up ensured a proximity to the President, it also created an institutional distance from the scientific parts of the Commission, namely the Joint Research Centre and DG Research and Innovation. The resources provided for the role were minimal, both in terms of staff and budget.

DSC_7037A number of achievements were made in the three years the CSA role existed. These included inter alia:

  • The creation of the President’s Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC) which delivered two reports on Science & Society and Foresight;
  • The creation of the European Science Advisers Forum (ESAF) in which half of the Member States participated with their government science advisers;
  • The support to the creation of the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA);
  • The support to the establishment of the EU Agencies Network on Science Advice (EU-ANSA);
  • The establishment of a Commission-internal foresight network and the development of a Eurobarometer Survey on foresight;
  • The development of a close collaboration with the European roof organizations of the national science academies;
  • Acting as a kind of “scientific ombudsman” of the Commission, responding to public complaints about the use of scientific evidence in EU legislation;
  • Being a public ambassador for European science and technology;
  • Being a role model for women in science and the young generation.

When the CSA tried to settle a dispute between two scientific camps in the area of endocrine disruptors in mid-2013, NGOs started to attack the role alleging that the position was used as a shortcut by industry to lobby the top of the European Commission. A number of very voluminous access to documents (freedom of information) requests followed to which the CSA responded, considerably slowing down the operations of the slimly resourced office.

Business was indeed very much in favour of the role as it saw the CSA as a voice of reason in highly politicized debates (see letters from European CEOs, Business Europe and the European Risk Forum). Likewise, European science organizations voiced strong support for the Chief Scientific Adviser. This ranged from the Presidents of all European science academy organizations and the Directors-General of European research laboratories like CERN, EMBL and ESO, to the Directors of scientific charities, the Directors of Europe’s largest science museums and the European Federation of Science Journalists.

On 22 July 2014, a group of 8 NGOs submitted a letter to Commission President-elect Juncker, asking him to “scrap” the function of Chief Scientific Adviser because the post was deemed to be “fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration.” They also characterized the role as being “unaccountable, intransparent and controversial”. The letter triggered a wide number of reactions from the scientific community, notably an open letter initiated by Sense about Science which was signed by 773 researchers. A number of media outlets such as the European Voice (now Politico), EurActiv and Forbes magazine as well as science journals like The Lancet also published opinions.

As many of these reactions accused the NGOs of just being against the role due to Anne Glover’s stance on genetically modified organisms, a larger group of NGOs sent another letter on 19 August 2014. In this letter the NGOs clarified that their intention was “to stimulate a debate about […] the risks that continuing the CSA position poses to scientific policy advice in general.” They went on by saying: “Far from being anti-science, our message is that there should be more objective and diverse expertise available to policy-makers than any single adviser could reasonably be expected to provide”, arguing that President Barroso’s experiment of establishing a CSA position “under-mined expert research undertaken by European agencies and independent scientists.” The NGOs concluded that the CSA role needed to be removed because of its “fundamental flaws”. The second NGO letter was picked up in particular by French media (e.g. Le Figaro, Le Monde, Libération and L’Humanité) and also the NGOs published a number of statements to underpin their argumentation (e.g. Greenpeace), some of them even accusing the CSA of “seeking to eliminate scientific discourse” (see Spinwatch).

Picture2In September 2014 the High-level Group on Innovation Policy Management, a working group set up by the European Council with Member States representatives participating, published its report “Inspiring and completing European innovation ecosystems” which stated: “The former decision of the outgoing Commission President to appoint a Chief Scientific Adviser should be maintained. But the role should be strengthened and enlarged to oversee the elaboration and application of new methods of impact assessment of EU legislation as a key input for improving policy and regulatory quality. The CSA’s task should also involve the tracking and tracing of forefront scientific development, surveying and overviewing science and innovation communication and delivering foresight studies. All works and recommendations of the CSA must be public, including any dissenting opinions.”

In the same month Anne Glover herself submitted a briefing to the incoming President on the experiences made with the CSA role, alongside with a briefing on the President’s Science & Technology Advisory Council and a note with ideas on how the science advisory system should evolve.

The Commission confirmed to Anne Glover on the evening of 11 November 2014 – coincidentally while the eyes of the scientific world were focused on the landing of ESA’s Rosetta mission on a comet – that the Chief Scientific Adviser post ceased to exist with the end of the previous Commission and was not to be renewed in the new Commission.

The media storm that followed in the following days was very interesting in a sense that three types of reaction could be identified. First, there were the anticipated reactions of those who had been vocal in either supporting or opposing the role. This included harsh reactions from the scientific community (see Science, The Scientist, BBC, Independent) as well as business (see FreshProduce Journal, Food & Drink Technology, Beverage Daily), but also NGOs celebrating that their campaign had been successful (see CIEL). Both sides of the argument wrongly interpreted that the Commission had “scrapped” the post, whereas in reality it had just expired with the end of the previous Commission.

Second, commentators made the connection between the NGO campaign, Professor Glover’s public statements on GMOs and the decision not to renew the Chief Scientific Adviser post. Many journalists – especially from UK media – argued that Mr Juncker had “given in to Greenpeace” and “sacked” the CSA because of her pro-GM views (see editorial and article in The Times, Independent, Telegraph, The Guardian, The Spectator, Herald Scotland, Discover magazine) – without providing any evidence that this was the case. Some commentators even argued that removing the science adviser post equalled removing science advice to EU policies at all (the most absurd headline being “Greenpeace wins – Science is out of EU policy-making again”). The Economist provided a more balanced view.

DSCN0833The most interesting reaction though was the third one and it certainly surprised many in the European Commission. Suddenly editorials about the role of science advice in European policy-making started to appear across Europe, including in influential national newspapers and weekly journals. In some cases these did not appear in the science sections, but as front page editorials. The issue had finally hit mainstream media in Europe, also outside the UK. Major examples include Germany (Frankfurter Allgemeine, Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Spiegel Online, Freie Welt), France (RFI), Belgium (De Standaard), the Netherlands (De Volkskrant, Elsevier), Sweden (Svenska Dagbladet, Skanska Dagbladet,, ATL), Denmark (Altinget,, Poland (INN Poland), Switzerland (, La Fribune), Italy (Il Foglio Quotidiano, Strade Online, I Mille), Spain (El Punt Avui) and Portugal (Dinheiro Digital, Observador, Noticias ao Minuto). The issue also triggered reports and editorials from around the world, most notably in the United States (Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker), Canada (La Presse), China (Xinmin, CN Beta) and Brazil (Carta Capital).

One might argue that the CSA experiment was a failure because obviously the Chief Scientific Adviser does not exist anymore. This is certainly true. However, I am convinced that the CSA experiment also was a big success.

It triggered discussions about the importance of science advice in Europe and how to deliver it. Not only Brussels embarked on discussions about science advice, but also at national level, for instance in Finland and the Netherlands, public debates started about the best mechanisms to feed science into policy-making. NGOs suddenly publish position papers on science advice in the European Commission (see here) and are organizing events about the subject, something we have not seen in the past. Business is contributing to the discussions as well (see an example here) and also the scientific community is playing its part in the debate (see for instance the book “Future directions for science advice in Europe”). All this is welcome and needed.

Finally, the new Science Advisory Mechanism suggested by the European Commission is a response to the great public interest in the matter. Obviously, the Commission has not decided just to go back to pre-CSA times, but to replace the CSA with something new, hopefully more effective. Apparently the CSA fulfilled some functions that now seem to be missing. All of the above shows that the CSA experiment had much more impact than one might think at first glance.