The Risk-Monger

In Praise of Anne Glover

As incoming European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, prepares his new team, there has been some debate over the future of the position of the Commission president’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and perhaps the role of Dr Anne Glover herself.

Anne Glover has been a breath of fresh air in how she both listens to others and speaks her mind – two character traits that don’t go down well among the chattering classes within the Brussels Bubble. She has had the nerve to stand up and defend the science on GMOs against the fundamentalists, and these activists have been campaigning all out, attacking her both personally and professionally. Dr Glover knows full well that her position was never going to be a popularity contest and while the Risk-Monger has, himself, disagreed with her (in particular, on her position on climate change), I respect her right to express her views and appreciate the tone upon which she sets them across.

Outside of the president of the European Commission, no one has ever wanted an independent chief scientific adviser. From 2003-2005, I was involved in developing the European Policy Centre’s report entitled Enhancing the role of science in the decision-making of the European Union. Many of the recommendations in this report have come to fruition, including the call for an EU Chief Scientific Adviser. When the lead author, Bruce Ballantine, sadly lost his battle with cancer while finishing this work, Stanley Crossick asked me to pick up the ball and promote the launch of the report. Everywhere I had gone within the Commission, there were scowls and outrage towards our conclusions – none louder than from civil servants within DG Research concerning the proposal for a chief scientist post. Looking back, this was understandable – the last thing that the main research voice in the EU would have wanted would be to have an independent scientist having the Commission president’s ear.

High-level advice must be given in confidence

In the European Policy Centre launch conference, I arranged a debate on what sort of role this chief scientific adviser should have. Michael Rogers, then chief scientist in the Commission’s GOPA (later BEPA) argued for a quiet, behind the scenes advisory role, while the then Chief Science Adviser to the Irish Government, Barry McSweeney, argued for an “out-front and centre” role of a scientist publicly defending the science in policy debates. The views in the audience were mixed and to this date these two facets are important (although McSweeney’s downfall had to do, to some extent, with his confrontation with the anti-GMO crowd that then turned their attacks directly on him).

Dr Glover has mastered both roles, being an outspoken advocate for more science in the policy process (and less politics in the science process) while at the same time rightly recognising that her advice (and the Commission president’s decision on whether or not to follow it) should be confidential. As Winston Churchill had said, scientists should be on tap, but not on top, so any advice needs to be received by leaders, but not forced on them. In other words, the advice must be made in confidence and not transparent.

The anti-science, “trust no one” activists from CEO, Greenpeace and HEAL are now going around Brussels spreading their outrage that high-level advisers should be allowed to give advice in “secret” (ie, not transparent); this indicates the level of their naivety regarding the policy process. Since BSE, the risk management process in Brussels has been separated from the risk assessment process giving the policy-makers the opportunity to bring in other, non-scientific elements into their decisions. Should Mr Juncker’s Chief Science Adviser advise him, for example, that the scientific weight of evidence on GMOs is largely favourable, and this advice is made transparent and public, the president would have a hard time choosing, as his opinion so leans, to ignore the advice and act against pro-GMO legislation. Demanding that the scientific advice be made public would have the risk assessor become the risk manager, thus neutering any political power of the Commission leaders (and put the scientists on top). Did those anti-science activists, charmed by the virtue of transparency, actually think their arguments through before launching their PR offensive? How do you spell “stupid”???

(As an aside note: on September 11 the Risk-Monger will be moderating an evening event during a PR conference in Brussels on the relationship of privacy and transparency where this subject will surely be discussed.)

A single adviser (and not a committee) is essential

Dr Glover has also served as a contact point for scientists who feel that the European Commission has not been following proper or rigorous scientific practices (as in the case of the activism surrounding the endocrine disrupter debate). Given that there is no accessible scientific advice bodies, Anne Glover has become a source for scientists to express their concerns. Removing this person, even replacing the post with a bureaucratic unit, would lessen the value of this essential, personal contact point. It is interesting to note that scientists and science-based organisations are defending Dr Glover in large numbers while those leading emotional, activist campaigns want to see her, and the post, go.

Greenpeace and CEO’s reasoning for a large group of advisers in place of a single scientific adviser is wrong, mal-intended and naive. When three scientists come into a room, it is not uncommon to arrive at four different opinions (such is the nature of science if one agrees with Karl Popper). Rather than leaving the president of the Commission confused, the chief scientific adviser (in the singular) sifts through the evidence and advises on the best position according to the available information. That Corporate Europe Observatory and Greenpeace are often on the wrong side of the scientific advice is not the fault of Dr Glover, and we should not resort to replacing the scientists when the results yet again don’t match their ideology. Not since before the Renaissance has such a view prevailed in Europe (although the Risk-Monger has often observed that the positions of some of these activist groups risks taking us back to the Dark Ages).

Ignore the wolves, Dr Glover has done an exceptional job

It has surely been a frustrating tenure for Dr Glover and I admire her energy and perseverance – starting from zero, she has achieved so much. She once mentioned that there were very few Member States with scientific advice centres or scientific advisers, leaving her without adequate representation and resources at the national level. She has since set up a pan-EU network of government science advisers and a Science and Technology Advisory Council. She still has much to do, including following up on her plan to open a consultation on the EU’s use of the precautionary principle, but her achievements are remarkable (and thus the negative attention she has drawn from the anti-innovation cynics).

I respect Dr Glover’s right to complete her post and move on to a position where she will receive the acknowledgement and appreciation she deserves … but I wish she would accept a second term. The activist crowd would love to see the policy process move along with less scientific evidence and they have felt threatened by Dr Glover’s strength of character (see an earlier blog where I challenged CEO to show her some respect). She speaks her mind, eloquently, and challenges activists to put facts over emotions – no wonder they are campaigning to remove this post and her personally.

Equally frightening would be for Dr Glover to be replaced at the end of her term by some sedate, retiring scientist happy to quietly ride out his or her career without raising any dust or noise. The role of scientific evidence in the policy arena should not be left to a faceless, shy bureaucrat with a BSc. I cannot think of anyone better suited for this post than the present occupant.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Brussels need Dr Anne Glover to stay for another term.


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  1. An interesting sketch on how the scientific adviser came to be. Those who question Ms Glover’s role are not necessarily “anti-GMO” or indeed “anti-science”. The big sticking point is her insistence on delivering advice “in confidence”. This fact alone undermines the very claim that she is acting independently and gives succour to her detractors that she has some secret agenda. It gives cause for consipracy theories to about where there might be none.

    1. Thanks Kathleen (and sorry for the delay in publishing – the BlogActiv spam-filter is completely useless). The ironic point of the demands of Greenpeace and CEO is that they are in essence demanding a scientist-based dictatorship (a sort of Platonic Philosopher King). I seem to be the one arguing for less science in the decision process.
      My argument is that the scientist needs to be on tap rather than on top and therefore needs to give advice in confidence. The reason we remove the scientist from the policy process (separating risk assessment from risk management) is because, in the past, a scientist’s views were transparent and widely broadcast leaving the policymaker in an uncomfortable position of either following the adviser’s views or being judged as an anti-science Luddite. This happened during the BSE (mad cow) crisis, although there we found different scientific advisers giving different advice (very loudly and transparently). The scientific advice is one factor in a decision process but not the only one and the policymaker should not be provoked into making a decision according to “just the science” which may involve other factors as well. It is certain that Angela Merkel’s science advisers were telling her not to shut down all of Germany’s nuclear capacity – but she had involved other factors in that decision (public sentiment post Fukushima, election results, a desire to expand renewables, coal industry lobbying …). If that “keep nuclear” advice had been transparent, she would have had a hard time having the independence to make that decision. Merkel had the right to reject the best scientific advice and so does Juncker (otherwise, as I mentioned, he would have a much harder time pushing for stricter measures against GMOs if we all knew what the chief scientific adviser felt). Expertise and scientific advice have to enter before the decision is made, but it must not dictate the decision (on tap, not on top).
      If we don’t trust regulators, even if there were three scientists on a committee and they decided against my interest, sure enough, we would cry out conspiracy. We have to be less paranoid here – decisions that don’t agree with my views are not necessarily due to some evil lobbying, bad expert advice or secret agenda. Maybe my evidence is flawed. Maybe I have to learn to trust that there are those out there capable of making a decision without my input.

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