Why the post of EU chief scientific adviser made no sense

29 Apr 2015 | Viewpoint
Science advice in Brussels needs improvement, but the “flawed” office of chief science adviser was not the way to do it, says Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace UK

When President Jean-Claude Juncker took up office, a coalition of lobby groups called on him to abolish the post of EU chief scientific adviser (CSA), inhabited by Anne Glover, which had been created in 2012. By contrast, many science institutions supported a continuation of the role.

An initial letter setting out some of the issues and calling for the post to be scrapped was signed by nine non-governmental organisations.

There was then a strong reaction from scientists and other groups, who saw the call for the abolition of the CSA post as being an attack on the, “integrity and independence of scientific advice”, writes Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director of Greenpeace UK, in an essay in an essay published by the Centre for Science and Policy.

Perhaps surprisingly for those who were defending the CSA role, far from quelling dissent, the group calling for the post to be abolished subsequently tripled in size as more NGOs from the environment, health and governance sectors supported a second letter, elaborating why they felt CSA post had become an impediment to good science in policymaking.

This second letter stated that rather than attacking the integrity and independence of scientific advice, the signatories were seeking to uphold it. Parr notes, many of the statements supporting the role of the CSA came from leading scientists and well-respected scientific institutions. But, as was observed by public interest lawyer Alberto Alemanno, “Most of these statements of solidarity mostly accused the NGOs of being anti-science in their stance, rather than constructively engaging with the legitimate concerns they advanced.”

Evidence for abolition

One of the key worries, as stated in the first NGO letter, was that, “Vested interests have long realised that the more you concentrate scientific advice into the hands of one person, the easier it is to control.”

The CSA added an extra layer (or centre of power) in scientific advice, Parr writes. Or, as the second NGO letter put it, “the Commission already has a set of processes and institutions providing scientific policy advice. The general problem is not a lack of scientific evidence, but the inconsistency with which the European Commission responds to the evidence presented even by its own services.”

The Joint Research Centre and European Environment Agency produce a great deal of evidence and reports, both at the request of the Commission and independently, and existing directorates have numerous advisory committees.

In fact, having an ‘extra’ source of science advice confused responsibilities and mandates, and made it unclear who was in charge, and where the crossover lay between science and policy processes, says Parr.

Flaws in the CSA role

Across the European Commission there is variability in the quality of science used in policymaking which needs to receive far more attention, Parr believes, noting that currently there is no mechanism to deal with these weaknesses, and the CSA had neither the authority nor the capacity to address them.

Gaps in the science informing policy

Sometimes the gap between broad reviews of science and the resulting policy it delivers is large, Parr says, citing the case of bioenergy.

Scientific evidence indicates that impacts on the carbon cycle in both the biofuels and biomass sector are complex and important. But claims Parr, the changes in land use indirectly caused by the production of biofuels, or the carbon debt arising from the use of wood as fuel, are not represented meaningfully in sustainability standards. This potentially undermines any benefit that bioenergy could provide in tackling climate change.

While there may be a case for a centralised audit function to scrutinise science processes, the CSA post was neither designed nor equipped to address these weaknesses in Commission science policy advice. Instead, it added another scientific advisory post – and one that functioned in a flawed way, Parr says.

The activities of the CSA were contrary to core science advice principles of transparency and clarity of responsibilities, Parr writes. For example, Glover’s advice to President Barroso was not public and far from insisting on accountability, she once commented that her advice should remain “not transparent” and “immune from public scrutiny”.

What should science advice look like in Brussels?

Following the CSA controversy, 18 NGOs have developed a set of principles for science advice that they want to see incorporated into the new system for scientific advice now in the works. There should be:
  • Transparency of advice;
  • Clarity of the relationship between science advice and political choices;
  • Clarity of roles and relationships in the evidence-gathering and appraisal processes;
  • Independence of the advice from financial interests;
  • Full explanation of the reasons for policy decisions, and the role of science advice in coming to those decisions;
  • Public funding for information of public value.
Abridged, from one of a series of essays on science inputs to policy published by Centre for Science and Policy here

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