23 May 2012   |   News

Translating Europe’s “fantastic science” into growth

The need for scientific research to deliver economic growth has never been more pressing. The EU’s first chief scientific adviser Anne Glover tells Science|Business what she will do to close the gap between science and industry, and promote innovation

When Anne Glover first donned a white lab coat as a biochemistry student at Edinburgh University in 1974, academic science and industry were separate worlds. Even as a PhD student at Cambridge University, she didn’t meet a single industrialist. “It would have been frowned on had I spoken to industry,” says Glover. “I thought business people were a foreign species.”

A good scientist, Glover changed her view as evidence piled up to counter that cultural norm, specifically the vibrant university-industry collaborations in other parts of the world that were speeding new technologies and innovations to market. In 1999, Glover crossed into that once unfamiliar territory herself to co-found Remedios, a Scottish environmental technology spin-off based on biosensors research she carried out at Aberdeen University. By 2006 she had become a vigorous public champion for bridging the gap between science and business as Scotland’s chief science adviser.

Anne Glover: The Making of a Chief Scientist

1956    Born in Arbroath on Scotland’s northeast coast (where she develops a life-long love of sailing)

1974-78  Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry, Edinburgh University 
1978-81  Doctorate in Molecular Microbiology, Cambridge University

Academic Research
Tracking microorganisms that she has modified to glow in the dark in the presence of certain environmental contaminants

Industry Background
Co-founder and technical director (1999-2003) of Remedios, an Aberdeen-based company that uses her biosensor research to diagnose environmental pollution and help with clean-up

Professional Life
2001-present  Chair of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Aberdeen
2006-2011 Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland
2012-present   Chief Scientific Adviser to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso

Now Glover has brought that campaign to Europe. At the beginning of the year she became the EU’s first chief science adviser, a post created by President José Manuel Barroso, to whom she reports. A key role will be supporting Europe’s high-profile bet that research and innovation can deliver economic growth as well as fixing broader social problems. “Europe has fantastic science. And we have great companies,” says Glover. “What we are not doing well, is matching them up.”

Rattling the cage

Improving the chemistry between industry and business is at the top of Glover’s to-do list, along with promoting evidence-based policy making, and championing careers in science, engineering and technology. In an interview with Science|Business in her new office at the Berlaymont, the 56-year-old molecular biologist discussed her vision for accelerating Europe’s shift to a knowledge economy.

“I want to rattle the cage of the business community,” says Glover. “I want to wake them up to the fact that there is a whole box of presents waiting for them [in European universities and research institutes], and literally all they have to do is go in and unwrap them.” Business must reach out to the “knowledge producers” in universities, she says. At present, industry is not discussing its biggest research headaches with scientists.

Glover has dealt with these cultural misunderstandings before. As Scotland’s chief science adviser, she helped convince companies that academics do care about innovation and don’t just “have their heads in the clouds”. One of the most important things businesses can do is just establish contact with universities, says Glover. “Companies should adopt a pet researcher.”

Erosion of relevance

Europe’s universities need a wake-up call too. “They are the ones with all the smart people after all,” she says.  “They can be more innovative than anyone else, surely.”  If universities fail to link research to solving global challenges, they risk an erosion of relevance and credibility, warns Glover. “We’re seeing a redefinition of the role of the research university – not just to produce knowledge but to help harness it for the benefit of society…There is a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of our ancient universities.”

That doesn’t mean scientists and researchers must become entrepreneurs. Researchers simply need to think about the practical applications of their work. “They need to ask themselves, ‘Are there any small businesses or big multinationals which might use this?’” says Glover.  “That’s their responsibility.”

Relying on evidence

Glover relishes vigorous debate – and it’s just as well since controversy comes with the job. Public fear and debate can erupt over everything from disease outbreaks to the safety of new technologies. Besides, the scientific underpinnings of such global issues as climate change, food security and water accessibility are far from clear. Glover’s job will be to provide authoritative guidance on the basis of scientific evidence in the face of those uncertainties. 

“It’s a huge challenge,” says John Wood, chair of the European Research Area Board (ERAB), which in 2009 counselled the Commission to appoint a European chief science adviser to ensure that policy is based on the best empirical evidence. Glover’s effectiveness will depend on her ability to act independently within the enormous Commission bureaucracy, he said.

During her five years as Scotland’s chief science adviser, Glover certainly asserted her independence. When introduced to Scotland’s head of state, the First Minister, she quickly corrected his mistaken notion that she was a civil servant. “My role is never to embarrass politicians or put them in a difficult spot.  It’s to talk about the evidence and be true to that.”

At the same time, Glover acknowledges that politicians sometimes have good reasons for ignoring evidence. “What I’d ask is for politicians to be transparent about the use of evidence. If they choose to ignore it, there’s an obligation to say why.”

Looking back on her achievements as chief scientist in Scotland, Glover is proud to have increased awareness of technology’s impact on the economy. Spending on education in Scotland has risen – a cause she championed – despite an austerity budget. And in 2011, the First Minister of Scotland, invited Glover to sit on the government’s council of economic advisers. “The government clearly realised that the economy is linked to our achievement in science, engineering and technology.”

Glover will use the same science-centred approach on the European stage. “I would hope my role would be seen as an honest broker. I’m there to challenge and help refine the arguments around the evidence base, which is a healthy thing for Europe.

Encouraging career scientists

Another priority for Glover will be infusing Europe’s youth with a passion for science, engineering and technology. “I want the smartest young people in Europe to consider a career in science, engineering and technology,” says Glover, arguing that graduates with those backgrounds have the broadest set opportunities.  “Our success in Europe and our global position in the future will depend on our being smart.”

In particular, Europe needs to give star status to engineers. “They are the link between knowledge and the economy. That’s what they do,” Glover says. “They are very precious people. And what an exciting place to sit – they make things happen.”

Glover argues science is for big thinkers and idea-generators, not narrow specialists. “New thinking across scientific boundaries has fuelled an exponential rise in knowledge generation which is transforming science and research,” she says. “For my work in microbiology to have great impact, I probably need to speak to mathematicians, informatics specialists, material scientists, possibly a chemist – and in wilder moments, a high-energy physicist. Then I need an engineer to convert my research to a real product.”

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