The Glover case. Why Europe has lost its scientific advisor

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Someone could have hoped for a different end, but the signs were all clear: few days ago, Juncker made a final decision on cutting the role of the Chief Scientific Advisor at the European Commission. Apparently, this decision came after a struggle between the scientific community and some environmental NGPs, one above all, Greenpeace. But the story is more complicated, and is related to the new geopolitical axis in Europe: science has been (one of) the sacrificial victim in the war over the new balance in the European politics.

Since the beginning

Anne Glover had been the first, and the last, Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA): the adventure begun in 2010, during the Barroso Commission II. Since then, she faced a strong opposition, especially from some Members of the Commission and some Member States, as her role was designed on the UK and US scientific advisory model, and considered a too powerful position; however, Barroso decided to endorse the CSA position, but with a very low budget and less power over bureaucracy. Despite that, Glover, a Scottish Professor in microbiology, took her role seriously and started an intense action, first of all trying to map the scientific advisory models of each EU Member States. Her approach was frank and down to earth, but she started to face opposition from part of the civil society as she stated that there was not sufficient scientific evidence in saying that GMOs are dangerous for human health. But, until this summer, her position was not at the center of the stage. Then, quite suddenly, in July the situation got complicated.

CSA vs the Commission in a nutshell

The political struggle over the election of Juncker seemed to take science as an hostage. On the public, and explicit, point of view, CSA position was opposed by environmental groups due to her abovementioned position on GMOs. Actually, their stance against Glover’s position was taken as an example of how giving the scientific advisory power to just one person could mean to leave an open doors in multinational corporations’ lobbying activity. On the other hand, many scientists explicitly asked Juncker to leave her in office. Meanwhile, in the famous Mission Letter to newly nominated Commissioner Carlos Moedas, Juncker framed his general science policy into an industry driven research, with very few places left for basic research. On a closer inspection, the Letter already contained the headstone for the CSA experience, as Moedas was charged with “[making] sure that Commission proposals and activities are based on sound scientific”.


So, at the end of all, why did Juncker take this decision? There are, at least, three reasons. First of all, a dangerous lack in European civil society consensus, after the scandal on Juncker’s financial activities in his home country, Luxembourg. In other words, it seems that endorsing environmental groups’ position could lead to a positive return of consensus in the public opinion. But the deep meaning of this decision must be found somewhere behind the scenes.

A second reason could be the attempt to strengthen Moedas’ role into the Commission. The Portuguese new Commissioner of Science and Research have a lower role compared with his predecessors (the energy issue, in particular, is shared with other Commissioners), but he was one of the few who “safely” passed the Parliament examinations. Moreover, Moedas needs to gain trust by the scientific community, as many feared his lack of experience in scientific policy-making.

The third reason is quite indirect, but certainly has some weight in the decision. Juncker and the United Kingdom Prime Minister Cameron are in open contrast, since the election of the former Luxembourg Premier. While, in the UK, the debate whether to remain or not in the European Union project has become a hot discussion, Juncker had to undergo Cameron’s decision in endorsing Jonathan Hill as a Financial Commissioner (a sort of guardian over the banking union project), who had some problem in passing EU Parliament hearings. In brief: probably Glover CSA position had been exchanged with Hill portfolio, as, on the contrary, two British citizens could have had too much influent positions.

What’s next

Juncker decided to reorganize the entire advisory system in the EU. First of all, he renamed the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA) in European Policy Strategy Centre (EPSC), with a new structure – the CSA position was not mentioned. Anyhow, it is still not clear how Juncker will manage independent scientific advice: in other words, the struggle over an evidence-based approach in EU policy making is far from be solved.

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A large table in a lecture hall with many medical practitioners of dubious fame seated around it: in the background are many tiers of spectators. Engraving, 1748. Wellcome Trust Collection.

«Soltanto quando certi eventi ricorrono in accordo con regole, o regolarità, come nel caso degli esperimenti ripetibili, le nostre osservazioni possono esser controllate – in linea di principio – da chiunque. Non prendiamo neppure sul serio le nostre proprie osservazioni, né le accettiamo come osservazioni scientifiche, finché non le abbiamo ripetute e controllate.