European Commission scraps chief scientific adviser post

Scientists and science bodies have reacted with dismay to the decision by the European Commission to axe the post of chief scientific adviser.

November 14, 2014

European Union

The post was only created in 2012, since when it has been filled by Scottish biologist Anne Glover. However, Professor Glover announced on Wednesday that Jean-Claude Juncker, the new commission president, would not seek a replacement for her when she departs in January.

The future of the position has been contested since environmental groups, irritated by Professor Glover’s support for genetically modified crops, wrote to the commission in July calling for it to be scrapped.

They described the role as “fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the commission directorates”.

Science bodies hit back with letters of their own calling for the post to be retained.

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, called the commission’s decision to scrap the post “a very backward step by the new commission”.

“Scientific advice must be central to EU policymaking, otherwise you run the risk of having important decisions being unduly influenced by those with mixed motives,” he said. “If the commission has a plausible plan for ensuring that scientific evidence will be taken seriously they need to start sharing it with people soon, otherwise they will encourage those who portray the commission as out of touch and not willing to listen to informed advice.”

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said the commission had given no explanation for its decision to the scientific community, which has “admired, respected and valued the contribution that Anne Glover has made as CSA”.

“When we wrote to the president of the commission with other medical research charities to express our support for the CSA role, we were assured by his office that he valued independent scientific advice. It is hard to see how the quality and influence of this advice can be maintained, let alone improved, by this decision,” Mr Farrar said.

Martin Rees, astronomer royal and former president of the Royal Society, agreed that Professor Glover had done “a splendid job despite limited resources”.

“It would send a disquieting signal if her success wasn’t built upon,” he said. “It’s crucial for Europe that its immense scientific potential should be optimised and exploited.”

Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said the decision felt like “a blow to the stomach”.

“British companies tell us they are often frustrated by policy decisions in Europe they see as uninformed by evidence, which impact hugely on their ability to research and trade in the UK,” she said. 

Colin Blakemore, director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London and a former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said it was “a sad day for science, policy, politics and the public in Europe”.

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