16 Apr 2015   |   News

Director General of the Joint Research Centre calls EU chief scientific adviser role into question

Brussels’s short-lived science advice experiment was “difficult”, and the reaction to the scrapping of the role overblown, says Vladimir Šucha, head of the EU’s in-house science service

Vladimir Šucha, Director General of the Joint Research Service (JRC), the European Commission’s in-house science service, has questioned the usefulness of re-introducing the office of EU chief scientific adviser (CSA). 

The intricacies and legwork involved in coordinating with different European experts and agencies – an everyday “brokering” skill a CSA is expected to possess - is a tall order for one person, Šucha said. “There’s no one person who can understand the milieu of 28 member states.” 

In addition, the experience of having a designated science chief is not widespread in Europe. “Only two European countries – Ireland and the UK – have [government] chief advisers for science; 26 don’t,” Šucha noted.

The position of EU CSA, held from its establishment in 2012 by the former chief scientist of Scotland Anne Glover, was scrapped last year by the newly-elected Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker. “It was an experiment; a very difficult [one],” said Šucha of the short-lived post.

The axeing of the office, following complaints of a lack of transparency from Greenpeace and a number of other environmental pressure groups, drew protests from the scientific establishment across Europe.

Speaking on Monday at the launch of a new JRC report on global food security, Šucha said the reaction to the abolishment of the CSA office was overblown. “I was surprised to see a large number of articles written about this – for me it was a non-issue,” he said.

There was not the same equanimity elsewhere. The backlash from scientists was keenly felt inside the Commission, sparking a push in January to explore options for establishing an alternative. Carlos Moedas, the EU’s Commissioner for Research, was given the job of coming up with some new proposals before the summer.

Šucha, a former director of Slovakia’s Research and Development Agency, the national body responsible for funding research, did not want to give his view of how things should be taken forward, saying he preferred to await Moedas’ recommendations. “It needs to analysed a little bit more; it’s calling for a deeper reflection,” he said.

One suggestion doing the rounds in Brussels is that, rather than a single appointee, the CSA post could be replaced by a committee. Finland, Denmark and Greece rely on advisory committees for science advice, as does Moedas’ home country, Portugal. That idea is not popular with everyone, with some concerns over accountability.

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