Research intelligence - Biologist finds way through Brussels maze

Europe's first chief scientific adviser aims to inform policymakers and the public. Paul Jump reports

May 17, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Into the labyrinth: commission bureaucracy may be complex, but it plays a key role in transparency and propriety, says Anne Glover

Anne Glover may have little trouble understanding the intricate mechanisms of microbiology, but Europe's first chief scientific adviser admits that the "big, complex beast" of the European Commission is proving more of a challenge to figure out.

"I am a very optimistic person and in my first week in Brussels I set myself the challenge of understanding how the commission works by the end of my appointment in 2014," the professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Aberdeen told Times Higher Education. "By week two I had reduced my expectations."

Nevertheless, while she admits that negotiating Brussels' infamously labyrinthine structures can be a challenge, she accepts that its bureaucracy plays an important role in ensuring transparency and propriety, and she has no regrets about taking up her new role earlier this year after five successful years as Scotland's first chief scientific adviser.

"I have been able to speak to whoever I want and the commission has been very welcoming and helpful. There is a feeling (around the commission) that there is an opportunity to do things better across Europe using the scientific expertise we have," she says.

On the other hand, she is also pleased to have negotiated leave to return one day a month to her Aberdeen lab - now staffed by just one senior postdoctorate researcher - since she regards maintaining a foot in active research as important not only for her credibility as a scientific adviser but also for her own "sanity".

Her central brief is to provide commission president Jose Manuel Barroso with advice on scientific issues that impact on commission policy. To do so, she has at her disposal not only her own expertise, but also that of the 2,500 scientists carrying out policy-related research at the European Union-funded Joint Research Centre.

She believes the introduction of evidence as early as possible in the formulation process is the best way to ensure that policies are "robust and long-lived".

But she admits that the three-pronged structure of European decision-making, which also includes the European Parliament and the EU member states, makes her task more difficult.

Hoping for a chain reaction

The difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that only a handful of the member states currently have their own chief scientific advisers with whom Professor Glover can liaise and coordinate.

Although she is happy to address the European Council of Ministers if President Barroso asks her to, in her view national politicians are more likely to listen to advice from their own scientists.

For this reason, she is encouraged that her appointment - soon to be followed by the creation of a similar post at the United Nations - has already prompted some member states to move to appoint their own chief scientific advisers. Professor Glover hopes this might prompt a "chain reaction".

"If there were a network of European (advisers), it might help to change a lot of the discussions around issues that involve a lot of science - and, in many cases, uncertainty. Scientists love uncertainty but, by and large, politicians hate it and to have a translator talking about what the uncertainty means, how it can be managed and what the risks and rewards are would be very helpful," she says.

She also hopes to raise political awareness of the calibre of European science, which she believes could be improved with more Continent-wide collaboration on infrastructure projects and realisation of the European Research Area's dream of permitting free movement of researchers and grants across borders.

Such awareness could boost science's funding and influence in Europe, as it has in Scotland on the back of a report Professor Glover commissioned that ranked the country number one in the world for citation impact.

Cultivating a more scientifically literate European public could also lead to transformational change in terms of the Continent's ability and willingness to respond to new scientific opportunities.

"In areas where people feel uneasy about science, it is partly because of not understanding what is happening and why," she says.

It's good to talk

To that end, Professor Glover plans to do all she can to explain to the public that science is a "wonderful thing and the most creative thing you can do with your life". But she admits she will need considerable help to make an impact and calls on all European scientists to get involved in public engagement.

"Scientists have been a bit lazy, thinking it is not their job, but I don't think that is true. Particularly if you receive government funding, you have a responsibility to talk about your science, not just to other scientists but also to the people who have provided you with funding in the first place," she says.

She admits it is still not the case that all Scottish policy is informed by evidence, but she believes that the appointment of a chief scientific adviser has created an expectation that it should be.

She accepts that social, ethical or environmental considerations sometimes entitle politicians to disregard evidence. But she is adamant that evidence gathered at great public expense should be held in the "highest regard", and in cases where it is ignored, politicians should be required to explain why.

Professor Glover has also made clear to the commission that she will not shy away from publicly acknowledging the many gaps she perceives between evidence and commission policy, if she is asked for her views.

"If I don't do that, I will have no credibility and there would be no point in my role," she says. "There will be times when what I am saying might be quite challenging. But that is OK, because there will be other times when what I am saying is entirely consistent with what the commission is doing, which I hope will lend added weight to it. You have to take the occasional bit of potential unpleasantness for a lot of reward."

She hopes a more robust relationship with evidence at the commission will prevent gaffes such as the much-criticised warning of a potential "apocalypse" during last year's Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan, an exhortation made by Gunther Oettinger, the European commissioner for energy.

But she regrets the fact that chief scientific advisers in particular are habitually obliged to take such pains with their choice of words, which can make them sound "a bit over-measured and unreal".

"It would be nice sometimes to be able to say something like: 'I think that is absolutely dreadful.' But that isn't going to happen because it would be misconstrued," she says.

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