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Chief Scientific Adviser: remarks on a problematic position, and a suggestion to Sense about Science

After CEO co-signed an open letter to J.-C. Juncker, president-elect of the European Commission, to ask him to scrap the position of Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to the President of the European Commission, the UK non-profit organisation Sense about Science almost immediately wrote an open counter-letter to it, later endorsed by numerous scientific societies and scientists. Titled “Scientific scrutiny in Europe is essential”, the letter asks for the position of Chief Scientific Adviser to be maintained because its signatories oppose “any attempt to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice received at the highest level of the European Commission”. The letter also defends the way the role has been fulfilled until now by its first holder: “we would further defend the record of Professor Anne Glover in having delivered impartial and rigorous advice”. Finally, the letter notes that our text criticises “Professor Glover's advice on genetically modified crops and organisms”, and a comment piece published by Sense about Science's director of campaigns Síle Lane in New Scientist implies that our letter shoots the messenger (“If you can't change the science, change the scientists”).

It is surprising to see such endorsement of the advice delivered so far by the CSA. According to Pr. Glover herself when we asked her, the President of the European Commission, J.M. Barroso, only asked her a couple of times to advise him since her mandate started, and this advice was confidential. We criticised this fact, due to the way the position was set up, but it is impossible that Sense about Science had any knowledge of the content of this advice – we have not –, unless there was a breach of confidentiality. After our letter was published, Pr. Glover defended in the media the need for this advice to remain confidential in the future.

Pr. Glover's public statements on the "scientific consensus” on the safe use of GM crops in agriculture, which is what Sense about Science seems to mainly refer to, were issued on her own initiative or in the course of media interviews, and reflect her personal opinions on the matter – the European Commission published a statement to get that fact clear. As we wrote, we do not share these views, but our point was to consider that such policy advocacy statements issued by an EU scientific advisor showed a problem in the definition of this position's mandate.

The extreme political sensitivity of the matter has unfortunately derailed the debate from a much needed conversation on how politicians use (or ignore) scientific evidence, and, crucially, how this evidence is produced (what freedom is there left to scientists when their budgets are cut and they are forced to work with industry?). Instead, we now see typical “labeling” arguments (“anti-science”, etc.) used by GM crops proponents against their adversaries in the decade-long controversy around these crops' authorisations for cultivation in the EU. Again: we do not want to replace Pr. Glover with someone who would share our opinion on the need to use existing GM crops in agriculture or not; rather we believe that the CSA position as currently defined should not be renewed when her term ends.

We entirely support “scientific scrutiny in Europe”. We want it improved; we want EU decision-makers to be able to rely on rigorously independent, multi-disciplinary, transparent and well-resourced scientific advice, and by independence we mean not only independence from governmental pressures or from political groups (including ourselves) but also, crucially, from commercial interests. Such advice, looking at conclusions but also uncertainties in the scientific evidence, is all the more needed in that existing evidence is often insufficient: EU risk assessment institutions are weak and under-resourced, and facing strong, persistent pressure from commercial interests. Giving a single advisor the power to bypass the work of the hundreds of officials and scientists already gathering scientific evidence for policy-making within or for the EU institutions, as happened in the endocrine disruptors dossier1, is not a solution: it is an additional problem. We think big business' proposals to expand the CSA role and even give it formal powers within the Commission (such as their proposal to have the CSA define criteria for eligible and dismissable scientific evidence for regulatory purposes) are not a defense of evidence-based policy-making but its opposite: a conduit for commercial interests to control the scientific evidence legislators are allowed to use. We welcome the debate triggered by our letter about the form scientific advice to EU legislators should take, and the kind of evidence to be used in this context.

As a first step in this direction, we would like to invite Sense about Science to expand to the agribusiness sector and particularly pesticides (given how crucial these are to the GM crops debate) the excellent campaign they have joined in the pharmaceuticals sector, "All Trials", to make public all drug trials data. It is still impossible to access the complete industry studies on pesticides used by the EU to evaluate their risks before their market authorisation. We had written to the CSA to ask her to publicly intervene about this situation, but to no avail – she told us her mandate prevented her from doing that. We are trying to convince the EU to publish this data because it is crucial that independent scientists can access it to test the results; but the pesticides industry is strongly resisting. We are convinced such concerns are shared widely in the scientific community, and would welcome any help.

  • 1. See Stéphane Horel's documentary “Endoc(t)rinement”, to be broadcast on France 5 on August 9 2014
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