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, DN.se, ATL), Denmark (Altinget, Videnskab.dk), Poland (INN Poland), Switzerland (News.ch, 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.

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