The current science advice rumblings in Europe seem to have been launched on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 with an open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, President-elect of the European Commission, from representatives of nine nongovernmental agencies (NGOs).
From the July 22, 2014 letter on the Corporate Europe Observatory website,
We are writing to you to express our concerns regarding the position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission. This post was created by Commission President Barroso at the suggestion of the United Kingdom, and was held by Ms Anne Glover since January 2012. The mandate of the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) is “to provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the President”.1
We are aware that business lobbies urge you to continue with the practice established by Mr Barroso and even to strengthen the chief adviser’s formal role in policy making.2 We, by contrast, appeal to you to scrap this position. The post of Chief Scientific Adviser is 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 in the course of policy elaboration.
Interestingly, they offer only one specific instance of Glover’s advice with which they disagree: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Note: Links have been removed,
To the media, the current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety3 whereas this claim is contradicted by an international statement of scientists (currently 297 signatories) saying that it “misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue.”4
Unfortunately, that argument renders the letter into an expression of political pique especially since the signatories are described as anti-GMO both in Roger Pielke’s July 24, 2014 opinion piece for the Guardian newspaper and in Sile Lane’s July 25, 2014 opinion piece for the New Scientist journal. As Pielke notes, the reference to GMOs overshadows some reasonable concerns expressed in their letter (from Pielke’s opinion piece; Note: Links have been removed),
While it is easy to ridicule the recommendation to abolish the science adviser, there is some merit in the complaints levied by the disaffected NGOs. They express concern that the CSA has been “unaccountable, intransparent and controversial”, singling out public statements by Anne Glover on genetically modified organisms. [emphasis mine]
Perhaps surprisingly, these groups find an ally in these complaints in none other than Glover herself who recently complained about the politicization of science advice within the European Union: “What happens at the moment – whether it’s in commission, parliament or council – is that time and time again, if people don’t like what’s being proposed, what they say is that there is something wrong with the evidence.” [emphasis mine]
Pielke’s piece draws parallels between the US situation (in particular but not confined to Richard Nixon’s policies in the 1970s) and Europe’s current situation. It is well worth reading as is Lane’s piece (Sile Lane is Director of Campaigns for Sense about Science; scroll down about 25% of the way), which amongst other arguments, provides a counter-argument to the criticism of Glover’s advice on GMOs,
… No matter that Glover has faithfully and accurately represented the strong scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs – that, in the words of a commission report, are “no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies”.
This is a position supported by every major scientific institution in the world, and all the scientific academies of countries and regions, but denied by the anti-GMO lobby, which promotes its own alternative “consensus” of a small ragtag group of academics out on the fringes of the mainstream.
There are a number of letters from various organizations countering the July 22, 2014 salvo/letter including this from Sense about Science,
Many other organisations are sending their own letters including nine European medical research organisations and the European Plant Science Organisation representing 227 public research institutions across Europe.
Dear Mr Juncker
We write to you with some urgency in response to a letter you will have just received from nine NGOs urging you to abolish the position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission. The letter, which includes Greenpeace as a signatory as well as other prominent NGO voices, alleges that the “post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic” and asks you to “scrap this position”1.
As organisations and individuals who share a commitment to improving the evidence available to policy makers, we cannot stress strongly enough our objection to any attempt to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice received at the highest level of the European Commission. …
You can add your name to the letter by going here.
There is a July 28, 2014 posting on the Science Advice to Governments; a global conference website which provides a listing of the various opinion pieces, letters, and other responses. (Note: This global science advice conference being held in Auckland, New Zealand, Aug. 28 – 29, 2014 was first mentioned here in an April 8, 2014 posting which lists the then confirmed speakers and notes a few other tidbits.)
In the end, it seems that everyone can agree as per the comments in the July 22, 2014 letter from the nine NGOs that science advice needs to be transparent and accountable. As for controversy, that will remain a problem as long as human beings live on the earth.