Date Added to website 29th May 2014
Below we reproduce a very strange article, published on the EU "EurActiv" web site, no doubt at the instigation of EU Chief Scientific Officer Anne Glover herself. It appears at the time of the Euro elections, and just as the jostling is going on for a replacement to take over from Barroso as EU President. So at one level it's just a political pitch, in which she seeks more power for her and for the scientific community in a world dominated by politicians and politics. Fair enough -- that's her job, you might say -- and if you want changes you might as well bring them into the public forum just before a new man or woman takes over from Barroso.
All that having been said, some of the things she says are very strange, and it's hard to understand what her real target is. She has a go at politicians, who obviously do not respect her scientific advice as much as she would like, and then has a go at "the political imperative" and at the tendency of politicians to decide what they want to do and then seek scientific evidence to underpin or support their predetermined position. We would agree with the Chief Scientist that this is a problem. Always has been, always will be. And she's quite correct that the partial or selective use of evidence is something that runs through the Commission, the Council and the EU Parliament. She might have added that this runs through the media as well, and through society at large. We all cite our evidence and hope that it is more convincing than the evidence cited by our adversaries. It's called scientific debate, and it is the basis on which science operates.
So why should Glover express a concern about this ancient and ongoing process?
Is she complaining, rather subtly, that some of the things she has been forced or encouraged to say on controversial topics (like GMOs) are not really her honest opinions or scientific conclusions at all, but have been foisted on her by her boss? Is she accepting that her support for GMOs has been way over the top? Is she seeing the writing on the wall, and preparing the way for an acceptance that all might not be as rosy on the GMO rose garden as she has led us to believe? Nice idea -- but we don't really accept any of that. If the views she has expressed on GMOs are not hers but Barroso's, she must be a very feeble Chief Scientist indeed, trotting out the party line while protesting that she values her independence and professional judgment above all else.
Or maybe she feels that the scientific establishment should be given a greater role in the decision-making process, and that more is needed in the way of "scientific certainty"? Interestingly, she says this: "What I am going to propose for the next President of the EC is to try and develop a new system of evidence gathering within the Commission that entirely disconnects evidence gathering with the political imperative.” What she wants is a central scientific office running a "new system of evidence gathering" and which would assess policy proposals in the light of "the evidence." She calls this "the evidence portal." OK -- sounds wonderful. No bias, and everything above board, fully transparent and independent.
At this point, the word "hypocrisy" comes to mind, since it's a bit rich for Glover to be extolling the virtues of "evidence" since she clearly has not the faintest idea what the word "evidence" actually means. She has demonstrated this over and again in her statements on the record about GMOs:
This is one of her classic comments: "If we look at evidence from [more than] 15 years of growing and consuming GMO foods globally, then there is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health, or environmental health." That is a statement of breathtaking arrogance and complacency, and it is also a lie. Chief Scientific Officers should not tell lies -- and she knows full well (because many people have pointed it out to her) that there is abundant documented evidence in the peer-reviewed literature of real harm, both direct and indirect, to animal health, public health, and the environment. Many people have died because of the "adverse impacts" that she denies, particularly in Argentina, India and Paraguay.
Glover appears to think that she has the right to decide what constitutes "evidence". In her book, it appears to mean "anything that supports the ruling hypothesis." Anything that does not support it, no matter how well documented it might be, is simply not deemed to be worthy of the word "evidence." That is frankly bizarre. She would not get very far in a court of law is she were to be a defending barrister who simply refused to accept anything brought up by the defending team as "evidence for the defence." Might she say "Oh, that's not really evidence at all. Just supposition and superstition"?
This is the nature of the problem. In parallel with this fundamental misunderstanding of the word "evidence", Glover has also suggested in other statements that scientific academies and other august bodies of senior scientists should be the arbiters of what is scientifically acceptable or not acceptable. One of the items on her work agenda is to increase the contacts and liaison between the scientific academies of counties in Africa, Europe and elsewhere. That's fine, you might think. But look a bit more carefully and you see something far more worrying -- and that is the spectre of "scientific orthodoxy" in which the establishment view of scientific topics (such as GMO risks) is ruthlessly promoted, with dissenters or mavericks mercilessly attacked and undermined. Look what happened to Pusztai, Seralini, Carman, Chapela, Carrasco and many others........ and be very afraid!
When you add in the insiduous but nonetheless blatant influence of industry and trade lobby groups within those academies, and within the scientific establishment generally, alarm bells ring, and we see why scientific fraud is becoming more and more of a problem. Conformity, timidity and scientific corruption in fields where there are powerful commercial interests at play are things we should all be worried about -- and it would not be a bad idea for Glover to recognize all of this and to talk about it.
So what we have here is a political pitch on behalf of the scientific establishment and its commercial backers, full of hypocrisy and distortions. If Glover truly wants to increase the status of science within the corridors of power in Brussels, she might make a start by convincing us that she knows what evidence is, and knows that scientific disagreement is something not just to be tolerated, but welcomed as an essential component of the scientific enterprise. For goodness sake, scientific uncertainty and dispute is what makes science so vibrant and exciting!
Here is the article:
A big challenge for the next European Commission will be to disconnect its evidence gathering processes from the “political imperative” that’s driving policy proposals, according to Anne Glover, the EU’s chief scientific advisor.
Speaking before the EU elections last week, Glover reflected upon her role, which was introduced by the outgoing President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso.
Glover was appointed in December 2011 to provide the President of the EU Executive with first-class independent scientific advice. A trained biologist who holds a chair in Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Aberdeen, she previously served a as chief scientific advisor for Scotland (2006-2011).
More than two years into her job, she seems to have learned a great deal about the internal working of the EU’s flagship institution.
And her assessment of what goes on inside the Commission’s walls is not rosy.
Commissioners with ‘crazy ideas’
“When I spoke to president Barroso about taking up this role, I said to him that for me it would only be attractive if I was regarded as an independent chief scientific advisor,” Glover told a briefing organised on 21 May by Eurochambres, the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
“What I said to him was that, for me to have any value or credibility, I need to focus on evidence and not on political considerations,” she recalled.
Describing her role at the Commission, Glover said she enjoyed considerable freedom in providing scientific advice to Barroso. Although her opinions remain confidential, she has made widely-publicised comments on subjects as diverse – and controversial – as climate change, GMOs or shale gas.
But it appears she also found it difficult to disentangle the Commission’s evidence gathering processes from what she calls the “political imperative” that’s behind them. Illustrating her point, she used a fictitious example:
“Let’s imagine a Commissioner over the weekend thinks, ‘Let’s ban the use of credit cards in the EU because credit cards lead to personal debt’. So that commissioner will come in on Monday morning and say to his or her Director General, ‘Find me the evidence that demonstrates that this is the case.’”
The Commissioner’s staff might resist the idea but in the end, she says, “they will do exactly what they’re asked” and “find the evidence” to show that credit card use leads to personal debt, even though this may not be the case in reality.
“So you can see where this is going,” Glover said: “You’re building up an evidence base which is not really the best.”
To back its policy proposals, the Commission often outsources the evidence-gathering part of the job to external consulting firms, which provide ‘impact assessment studies’ or ‘research’ that are often branded as ‘independent’.
However, Glover says such consultancies have little incentive to produce evidence that contradicts the Commission’s political agenda.
“If they want repeat business, [they] are not going to go out and find the evidence to show that this is a crazy idea,” she says.
To be fair, the Commission is not alone in trying to distort facts, Glover said. The same goes for the other two EU institutions – the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers, which represents the 28 EU member states.
“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. So everybody blames the evidence and nobody is honest about the fact that in many cases, understanding the evidence is the best possible platform to make the logical extension into policy. But they don’t like it so they say ‘We need more evidence’. And of course scientists can always produce more evidence.”
Contested impact assessments
There are countless examples of topics where EU policymakers have bickered over the evidence, including on the safety of nanoparticles, the impact of biofuel crops over food prices or chemical substances with hormone-disrupting effects.
In fact, the battle over evidence extends far beyond the EU institutions and spills over to the private sector and non-governmental groups trying to influence policy, sometimes with the backing of EU member countries.
Perhaps the most politicised to date was the REACH regulation on chemicals, which gave rise to one of the most epic lobbying battles in the EU's history, generating dozens of impact assessment studies before it was eventually adopted in 2006.
At one point, EU officials arranged a meeting to try and make sense of 36 different impact assessment studies on REACH, most of them focusing on the legislation’s projected disastrous cost on businesses. The Commission’s own initial impact study, meanwhile, had sought to highlight the benefits of REACH to health and the environment. A final impact study ended up broadly confirming the Commission’s original assessment.
Proposals for next Commission
To Glover, such drawn-out battles over the evidence on which policy decisions are grounded should become a thing of the past.
“What I am going to propose for the next President of the European Commission is to try and develop a new system of evidence gathering within the Commission that entirely disconnects evidence gathering with the political imperative,” Glover said.
According to Glover, a simple solution would be to create a special department at the Commission whose role would be to assess policy proposals against the evidence – “a central service which would be the evidence portal,” she says.
The service would take "questions" submitted to it by the Commission directorates and bring together the evidence to substantiate the issue at hand. Once formulated, the evidence base would be sent back to the policymakers who can then look at policy options based on the analysis.
And if the policymakers choose to adopt a policy that goes against the evidence, that’s OK, Glover says because other considerations – social, economic, ethical, philosophical – might be more important. “And I think that’s quite justifiable,” she says.
Crucially, Glover says transparency in the evidence-gathering process would be key, so that every stakeholder - whether a citizen, a business, a politician, a scientist – can look at the reasoning that’s behind policy proposals. "And that is all doable, it is not a fantasy. It would be quite easy to achieve," she says.
The Commission does have an impact assessment board, launched after the adoption of the contested REACH regulation, which brings together the bosses of all the main Commission directorates.
But Glover says its composition should be revised. “We should look at impact assessment in the Commission and try and make that more transparent and easier to implement,” she said.
“At the moment there is no scientist on the impact assessment board. I think there is an opportunity there.”