November 26, 2014
With the elimination of Anne Glover’s post of Chief Scientific Adviser, the President of the European Commission no longer has an expert to advise him on whom a credible scientist is and whom an activist using scientific information for campaign purposes is. This is a significant blow to evidence-based policymaking as we have so often seen that not all people in white coats behave scientifically when they come to Brussels. In asking who a scientist is, it would be useful to draw some distinctions between credible scientists and activist scientists.
- A credible scientist starts with the evidence and adapts the conclusions.
- An activist scientist starts with the conclusions and adapts the evidence.
- A credible scientist presents the evidence to policymakers and returns to the lab, leaving others to make decisions and communicate to the public.
- An activist scientist goes to the public or a PR manager, telling them where the policymakers need to change. The lab is frequently used for their documentary film crew or media interviews.
- A credible scientist continually challenges the paradigms and presuppositions with new evidence in order to test the foundations of the body of knowledge. To be sceptical is to be scientific.
- An activist scientist seeks to form a consensus around a view from which to take preferred policy actions and considers any challenges to this contrived consensus as malicious and unwanted.
In the past, the scientific community has been critical of creationists, who pre-define their perspective from Biblical scripture and seek to find the evidence to prove theology and dispel that which does not support their religion. Today the religion is eco-theology, and the scientific community needs to be more critical of such neo-creationists.
- Gilles-Eric Séralini’s GMO and pesticide-fed rat experiment is perhaps the most celebrated example of white-coated political abuse. As an activist scientist, he does not even pretend to be objective in his approach to GMOs – his campaign website is as virulent as the March against Monsanto site. Trying to provide a scientific basis to the campaigns against GMOs, Séralini designed an experiment to show how a diet of only a pesticide in high dosage or a GMO maize strain would end badly for any consumer. So he chose a particular type of rat that needed a balanced diet, fed them nothing but the chemicals or grains for an extended period (with an inadequate control group) and watched the tumours grow, providing emotional photos for the media. Once his article was accepted for publication (since retracted for methodological shortcomings), he called a press conference to reveal the shocking news and evidence (plus the trailer for his anti-GMO film showing researchers in hazmat suits risking contamination). Journalists were forced to sign an embargo agreement before being given access to the research – they were not allowed to share the information in Séralini’s paper with other experts. The outrage from the scientific community (from EFSA to the Chief Scientific Adviser) against this activist science was palpable. The NGO community praised it as the only real research on GMO risks and attack dog groups like Greenpeace and Corporate Europe Observatory have attacked the scientists who criticised Séralini. They have succeeded in removing Dr Anne Glover as Chief Scientific Adviser, and they now have their sights set on totally dismembering EFSA from the scientific community.
- We have seen a generation of activist scientists develop in the endocrine disruption research field around the antics of Niels Skakkebaek and Andreas Kortenkamp. From the early 1990s, they have been claiming that a certain select group of man-made endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) were causing serious hormonal problems, cancers and reproductive issues. The mainstream scientific community scoffed at their manufactured research but they became darlings of the anti-chemicals NGO community and prospered. From 1996 to 2010, the Danish government granted Skakkebaek funding and access to test sperm levels in young male military recruits from two towns in Denmark to prove his claims. Skakkebaek refused to publish his findings. When the Danish government insisted on seeing the results of this publicly funded research, they learnt that sperm levels were actually going up. Only an activist scientist would prefer to hide the evidence than admit to being politically influenced. See the Risk-Monger blog on this farce.
- Friends of the Earth campaigner, David Gee, articulated the concept of activist science while on secondment to the European Environment Agency. One recent example of how he put politics first and then use that to redesign the evidence is in his selection of two young activist academics, Laura Maxim and Jeroen van der Sluijs, who have no apparent bee research or bee field trial experience, to author the chapter entitled “Seed‑dressing systemic insecticides and honeybees” in the second volume of Late Lessons from Early Warnings. Were there no experienced bee researchers available or would that have complicated Gee’s objectives in redefining science as a precautionary service tool?
Not all activist scientists are NGO activists. Some civil society research is excellent, particularly in the fields of hygiene, health, EMF, ICT and air pollution. There are also celebrity activists not tied to NGOs (and not very scientific) like Jamie Oliver (who starts from the conclusion that the food industry is pure evil, and then looks for evidence). What would happen if he would find something good about McDonald’s? Would he present this information? Get serious!
There are also those scientists dedicated to learning, attracted by the wonders of science and discovery and committed to preparing the next generation of researchers. Unfortunately, as the university business model across Europe is adapting to a self-paying model for scientists (a type of venture science), the best teachers find themselves having to scramble to finance themselves.
Industry scientists don’t matter in this equation, since, due to intense lobbying by NGOs like Friends of the Earth and Corporate Europe Observatory, they are not allowed to offer their expertise or be involved in the evidence sharing process. This has become absurd on so many levels, but the denormalisation of industry hysteria has meant that if you have used your talents to develop innovative products benefitting society via industry, you are no longer welcome to share your knowledge and experience in the decision-making process. Don’t even bother.
Ironically, it is very often the most talented who take the plum industry research jobs. Industry recruiters pay top dollar for the best scientists – while the wallflowers passed over in the selection process usually have to scramble from one post-doc to another, with CVs littered with short-term research positions. It is tough out there for these poor souls! Every year the European Commission sees thousands of Marie Curie applicants in their late 30s and early 40s who have not yet established research or academic careers (and applying to get one to two years of EU funding). This has to be terribly frustrating, and their resentment of industry researchers (and the entire research system for that matter) is understandable. It could account for why they might turn to activist science and the first available microphone to vent their bitterness towards their former classmates, but it does not support credible science.
Industry scientists, like all industry employees, are obliged to follow strict ethical codes of conduct, including correct lab practices and research procedures. This does not imply that the management in their companies necessarily uses their findings, but if you take the best scientists, in the best lab conditions with the best budgets, companies with sustainable business plans would be foolhardy to not treat their scientists’ findings with priority. Do activist scientists like Séralini or Skakkebaek follow ethical codes of conduct? And what about the NGO activists who use their findings and parade these second-rate researchers around the political halls of Brussels?
In certain fields, like food additive research, all available specialists are directly employed by industry (there is a shortage in this research field) so if regulators need an expert on food additives not tied to industry, they have to find either undergraduates or the wallflowers that no company had dared to employ. Not the best foundation for effective policymaking. One must wonder where the best bee researchers are working. I don’t expect that they, or their research, are involved in the regulatory decisions.
But how do we know now who the credible scientists are? The NGOs succeeded in removing Anne Glover, the one person in the office of the President of the European Commission who could distinguish good science from bad. With that threat to their campaigning gone, NGO activists are free to call on any bitter wallflower’s B-grade “conclusive evidence” and who will be around in Brussels to say otherwise?
These last paragraphs are a philosophical tangent which may be heavy for some readers and not essential to this blog, but as background, might be useful for those trying to figure out what is going on.
What is objective science?
About 15 years ago, when I was involved in setting up the science communications tool, GreenFacts (that aims to communicate from credible, “objective” scientific documents), we had a debate about what is objective. Is science objective and how? As I had done my PhD on Kant, I brought in his dual distinction of objectivity. Objective can be that which is universal, immutable and certain – the Platonic Forms, for example, are objective. But within the empirical context (ie, science), objective means that which is not subjective (Kant used the same word for these two aspects of objective in German but teased the distinction of these terms with Latin qualifiers). For example, if I have a view on something I perceive, that view is subjective – if all of my peers agree with my view, it becomes objective (as in: no longer subjective).
Non-scientists tend to want to believe that scientific evidence is objective in the first sense (especially if it is used for managing risks and uncertainties), eg, climate change is an immutable fact, therefore we must act! But if we follow philosophers of science like Popper and Kuhn, we would say that science is only objective insofar as the scientific community agrees on certain points built on certain paradigms. These paradigms can shift and scientists must adapt their approach and conclusions as the evidence changes (in the 1970s, scientists were predicting an Ice Age).
Now what happens if we succeed in removing industry scientists from the table (a fait accompli) as well as any neutral scientific adviser (another fait accompli) and leave the decision-making process to those activists with certain non-scientific motivations who all agree on the same perceptions? What may be determined as objective (and therefore deemed as valid evidence) could be based on very bad science. This is where we are today.