Juncker axes EU chief science adviser role

13 Nov 2014 | News

After months of controversy, Anne Glover will leave the Commission in January – ending an experiment to bring scientific evidence into EU policy

A three-year experiment to improve the way the European Commission brings scientific evidence into its policy decisions ended abruptly November 11, with a decision to abolish the office of Chief Scientific Adviser Anne Glover.

A spokeswoman for EC President Jean-Claude Juncker confirmed the closing of Glover’s office, but said the new president is still considering other ways to handle scientific advice. So far, since taking office November 1, Juncker has already started changing the way other types of policy advice gets to his ear, by reorganising the EC’s Bureau of European Policy Advisers – of which Glover was a part – and renaming it the European Policy Strategy Centre.  

For her part, Glover, a Scottish microbiologist who took office under former President José Manuel Barroso in early 2012, said in an email: “The European Commission confirmed to me yesterday (Nov. 11) that all decisions on the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA) were repealed and so the function of chief science adviser has ceased to exist. The new European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC) which ‘replaces’ BEPA does not comprise a function ‘Chief Scientific Adviser.’”

The news was the dénouement of a typically murky Brussels policy story, in which a lobbying campaign over the summer by environmental groups – angered by Glover’s views that there isn’t sufficient scientific evidence against genetically modified organisms – turned what would have been a simple personnel decision into a political fuss. In July, when touring the European Parliament to build a majority for his election as President, Juncker had pledged to keep the role of CSA, in response to a question from Julie Girling, a British Member of the European Parliament sits with the centre-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). The UK government has been an ardent supporter of the CSA role. But by September, after the lobbying campaign, Juncker had fallen silent on the matter.

Advice on science advice

The whole issue of scientific advice to the Commission is a long-running sore point in Brussels. For the past decade, many groups unhappy with EU policy for one reason or another have complained that the way the Commission gets its scientific advice hasn’t been systematic, transparent or well-connected to the top of the power structure. The CSA role, urged as a solution in 2010 by a group of EU advisors, the European Research Area Board, was modelled on the powerful position, close to the ear of the President or Prime Minister, that CSAs in Britain and the US hold.

In fact, faced with opposition inside the Commission and some member-states, then-President Barroso ended up giving Glover the title but little budget or bureaucratic authority to act on it. Regardless, she travelled, tweeted and spoke in support of science in policy-making, analysed evidence on several  policy dossiers inside the Commission, and set up a network of the officials across the EU member-states who provide scientific advice to their governments  – whether called CSA or not.

Juncker in the past month has at least paid lip-service to the idea of better scientific advice. In his mission letter to Carlos Moedas, the incoming Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Juncker emphasised the need to “make sure that Commission proposals and activities are based on sound scientific evidence”. And he changed the reporting lines of another scientific unit, the Joint Research Centre, so it works with the education rather than research commissioner. As recently as last week, a spokeswoman for Juncker told Science|Business that the President “values independent scientific advice;” but she declined to comment how and where the new administration will get it.

While it’s been decided the office is to be abolished, Juncker may yet decide to build a different structure. In response to an email Nov. 13, a spokeswoman for the Commission, Mina Andreeva, said, Juncker has not yet decided “how to institutionalise” independent scientific advice.

Girling called the announcement "a complete volte face." 

"The role of science should be augmented not diminished and I shall be pressing Mr Juncker to explain why he has reneged on his commitment and what he intends to do next," added Girling in an email. 

A voice from Brussels

Glover, a professor on leave from the University of Aberdeen, had been working to improve the interface between science and public policy since she left her lab in 2006 to become Scotland’s first chief scientific adviser. In Brussels, her voice was often audible over the din of everyday politics. At times, she was frank and outspoken on the workings of the Brussels’ policy machine. In particular, she pointed to “a disconnect [between] evidence gathering [and] the political imperative”. Speaking to Nature, Glover said that, “Given the importance of science in Europe and the importance of evidence in good policy-making, the role needs a much bigger support group, and a budget to allow the initiatives that we want to do.”

During the summer, Glover's job prompted an acrimonious debate, when Greenpeace and eight other environmental groups, furious that Glover had spoken publicly on genetically modified (GM) crops, urged Juncker to scrap the position, which they deemed opaque. In response, a considerable number of scientists encouraged him to save Glover's post. Barroso himself defended her comments, saying that the CSA has a role in stimulating science debates in society.

Commission officials said that Glover’s contract runs until the end of February but she confirmed she would be leaving the Commission at the end of January – and indeed, she had previously announced her intention to return to Aberdeen, while still campaigning for the office of CSA to be continued as an institutional feature of the Commission.

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