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European Commission

Row over calls to abolish the role of chief scientific adviser for the European Commission

A letter from nine non-governmental organisations urging the incoming president of the European Commission (EC) to scrap the role of adviser has triggered a backlash.

Anne Glover, chief scientific advisor at the European Commission (EC)

Source: Friends of Europe / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser at the European Commission (EC), is at the centre of a row over whether her role should be scrapped

A row has broken out over the future of the role of chief scientific adviser at the European Commission (EC), after calls to abolish the position from a number of health and environmental groups.

Nine non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including Greenpeace, have written to the incoming president of the EC, Jean-Claude Juncker, urging him to scrap the role, which has been held by Scottish scientist Anne Glover — a former chief scientific adviser for Scotland — since it was created in 2012.

In the letter dated 22 July 2014, they claim that the role is “problematic” because it places too much influence in the hands of one person and “undermines in-depth scientific research”. It is a role which they describe as unaccountable, untransparent and controversial.

The letter refers to Glover’s public comments that implied there was scientific consensus about the safety of genetically modified (GM) organisms in agriculture.

That view, they argue, is at odds with nearly 300 international scientists who have signed a statement proclaiming that there is a “broad diversity” of scientific opinion about the safety of GM crops.

The NGO letter has triggered a backlash from other scientific organisations and independent scientists from across Europe, who have written to Juncker urging the president-elect to maintain the role.

This letter, which is being circulated by the Sense about Science campaign group, says the role is of fundamental value because it improves the use of evidence in policy making, “a goal that attracts strong support across Europe”.

The letter adds: “We would further defend the record of Professor Anne Glover in having delivered impartial and rigorous advice as she is mandated to do in this role.”

A second letter supporting the role and urging Juncker to strengthen it during his term of office has also been sent from nine other organisations, including the NHS European Office, the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK.

Defending the role of chief scientific adviser, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s chief scientist Jayne Lawrence said it was essential that politicians have access to the best independent scientific advice available.

“Science is often not black and white and, consequently, it is too easy on controversial issues, such as the use of genetically modified organisms, for a chief scientist to fall fowl of groups with vested interests,” she says. “However, it is exactly in these polarising debates that a chief scientist is necessary to give politicians a balanced, evidence-based view.”

The EC’s chief scientific adviser has responsibility to act as an independent expert adviser to the EC president on any aspect of science, technology and innovation. This includes major policy proposals as well as emergency planning.

The adviser also has a duty to develop partnerships with scientific organisations across Europe, including the medicines safety regulator the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

The EMA said that it has had no “institutional intervention” with Glover since she took up the role two years ago. She was, however, invited as a keynote speaker to an EMA conference in September 2013, which looked at the issue of conflict of interest and scientific experts. “She was very valuable as a speaker because of her scientific experience,” a spokesperson said.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2014.20066028

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