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Science policy is about debate and discussion – not one person working in secret (updated)

CHEM Trust, with over 20 other European civil society organisations, have today sent a letter to the President-Elect of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. In the letter we propose that the next Commission adopts a revised model of scientific advice, rather than the current single ‘Chief Scientific Officer’ approach.

The link between science and policy – and how uncertainty is understood and acted on – are key issues for any government or similar organisation. Many aspects of science are well understood, but in many areas of great controversy the science is subject to great uncertainty and dispute.

Science moves forward through such debate, with ideas that are now well established – like plate tectonics or the idea that most stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria – widely dismissed when they were first proposed. The debate continues in many other areas, such as on the risk of hormone disrupting chemicals, nanotechnology or the role of statins in preventative medicine.

One of the best examples of government failure when dealing with scientific uncertainty was in the UK, after a new disease had appeared in cattle – Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). One major question was whether this disease could spread to humans. For some years it was claimed that this was impossible, until the government in 1996 had to admit that in fact a new human disease, vCJD, was caused by exposure to BSE. They also had to admit that the public had not been properly protected from exposure to BSE; this disease has killed more than 100 people.

BSE and vCJD were a major failure of government, and led to a very extensive public enquiry, published in 2000, reviewing the failings that lead to the spread of CJD. Many recommendations where made on how to prevent this sort of case happening again.

The inquiry’s conclusions on scientific committees & on uncertainty are particularly relevant to the Commission Scientific Advisor discussions, notably:

  • The composition of the committee should include experts in the areas of the advice that is likely to be required.
  • Trust can only be generated by openness.
  • Openness requires recognition of uncertainty, where it exists.
  • The importance of precautionary measures should not be played down on the grounds that the risk is unproved.
  • Scientific investigation of risk should be open and transparent.
  • The advice and the reasoning of advisory committees should be made public.

Contrast this with the role of the Commission Scientific Advisor, who is one individual – not a committee with varying expertise and experience – but seems to have the power to over-rule other scientific advisory bodies. In addition, the current holder of the position – Anne Glover – believes that this post should operate in secret, with no disclosure of what the advisor is being asked to consider, nor of the advice they have given:

Anne Glover, the EU’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has said that her opinions to the European Commission should remain independent from politics and therefore “not transparent” and immune from public scrutiny.”

As the letter points out, we – and many others – believe that any advice should be published, and that the Commission’s scientific advice shouldn’t be concentrated in one person, however good a scientist they are.

Update on 2nd September:

ENDS Europe’s coverage of the letter has a link to this blog.

Update on 10th November:

New European Commission President Juncker has abolished the “Bureau of European Policy Advisors”, which includes the post of Commission Chief Scientific advisor. He is instead going to set up a new “European Centre For Strategic Policies”, which “would provide advice to Commissioners who would seek it, with sections on the economy, on  social affairs, on sustainable development, on foreign affairs, on institutional affairs and on communication” – see Euractiv coverage. This new body is due to start in January 2015, but it is not yet clear who will run it or how it will be structured.

ENDS Europe has reported that Anne Glover’s contract with the Commission ended at the end of October, when the previous Commission finished its mandate.

Update on 24th November

CHEM Trust and a number of other civil society groups have now sent President Juncker a joint letter outlining our views on “Principles for transparency, excellence and independence in scientific advice to the European Commission“. Corporate Europe Observatory have blogged about this letter.

Update June 2015

The Commission has announced a new ‘Scientific Advice Mechanism’ with a seven member panel of experts. There’s more details in this article.