The position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission
A letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, President-elect of the European Commission
Dear Mr Juncker,
We are writing to you to express our concerns regarding the position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission. This post was created by Commission President Barroso at the suggestion of the United Kingdom, and was held by Ms Anne Glover since January 2012. The mandate of the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) is “to provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the President”.1
We are aware that business lobbies urge you to continue with the practice established by Mr Barroso and even to strengthen the chief adviser’s formal role in policy making.2 We, by contrast, appeal to you to scrap this position. The post of Chief Scientific Adviser is 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.
Until now, the role of Chief Scientific Adviser has been unaccountable, intransparent and controversial. While the current CSA and her opinions were very present in the media, the nature of her advice to the President of the European Commission remains unknown. We have not been able to obtain any information on what the Commission President has requested advice on, let alone what advice has been given. To the media, the current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety3 whereas this claim is contradicted by an international statement of scientists (currently 297 signatories) saying that it “misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue."4
We hope that you as the incoming Commission President will decide not to nominate a chief scientific adviser and that instead the Commission will take its advice from a variety of independent, multi-disciplinary sources, with a focus on the public interest. We remain at your disposal if you wish to receive more detailed explanations of our concerns.
Hans Muilerman, Pesticide Action Network
Christoph Then, Testbiotech
Jamie Page, Cancer Prevention and Education Society
Claire Robinson, GM Watch and Earth Open Source
André Cicolella, Réseau Environnement Santé
Anne Stauffer, Deputy Director, Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL)
Nina Holland, Corporate Europe Observatory
Jorgo Riss, Director, Greenpeace European Unit
Christophe Morvan, Fondation Sciences Citoyennes
- 1. Cf. Ms Glover's webpage on the European Commission's website, http://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/president/chief-scientific-adviser/index_en.htm
- 2. Letter from Business Europe to Commission President Barroso, 6 May 2014. http://www.businesseurope.eu/content/default.asp?PageID=568&DocID=33005
- 3. For instance: No risk with GMO food, says EU chief scientific advisor, Euractiv.com, 24 July 2012, http://www.euractiv.com/innovation-enterprise/commission-science-supremo-endor-news-514072
- 4. ENSSER Statement: No scientific consensus on GMO safety, 21 October 2013. http://www.ensser.org/increasing-public-information/no-scientific-consen...
These groups have a good point. Science only works if it is transparent and open to criticism and peer review. Scientific advice given in secret is not really scientific at all - it is just one person's interpretation. That applies particularly when scientific advisors are advising on areas outside their normal field of expertise.
In Britain we have a chief scientist in our environment ministry (Defra) advising on topics ranging from bovine tuberculosis to climate change - when he is actually a specialist in sea mammals. Is his advice accurate? Should some of it be challenged? Was his advice accepted or rejected by the minister? No-one knows because it is secret.
So if Juncker wants a science advisor who will not only generate good advice but also some confidence in the process, he should get rid of the secrecy and allow science to work the only way it can - in the open.
This is silly. Of course in the modern age governments need a dedicated scientific advisor. How else can they make informed decisions on complex matters? The reason you want the post abolished is that sometimes the advisor comes to the conclusion that the evidence does not agree with your view. Instead of trying to get rid of the post, just accept that sometimes you are right and some times you might have got it wrong.