“The challenge for the Commission is to make that advice transparent, because transparency is fundamental for trust”

When Anne Glover was appointed as the first chief scientific adviser to the European Commission in 2011, her role soon caused controversy characterised by mistrust between critics and supporters of the role.

Above: Anne Glover visits ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile in her role as chief scientific adviser to the European Commission / Photo: European Commission

How did a microbiologist become interested in communicating science in the first place?

That’s an easy one to answer. You can’t see microbes so it’s always really difficult to explain to people how important they are. They’re everywhere. There are more microbes in the human body than there are human cells, they’re so important, but we can’t see them. So early on I thought I’ll need to start thinking about how I communicate what I do, because I’d like other people to understand so they can judge for themselves.

What were your hopes for the role of chief scientific adviser?

What I wanted to do mainly was to raise the profile of science within government. Most of the policies that we rely upon as citizens to provide us with safe foods, safe chemicals, safe products, innovative transport solutions, and sustainable energy and so on have to be based on something. You could just base them on political philosophy but that would be rather fragile, because political philosophies change, sometimes from day to day, certainly from one government to the next. Whereas if you base policies on evidence generated from good sound science, then you’ve got something much more robust, more long-lasting, and potentially more efficient. And that’s also something for citizens to trust in, if they know it’s real evidence, delivered by people who don’t have vested interests or a particular philosophical direction they want to take people in. I wanted to get within the European Commission to highlight the value of that and to identify how the Commission might do it better. A secondary focus was also to talk about how good Europe is at science, because the science, engineering and technology sector in Europe is really second to none. If you take all of the Member States together, we are world-beating. And yet nobody seemed to be telling that story. Those were two of the main hopes I had.

In your article for the Guardian, you described your experience as “containing elements of Quixote, Kafka and Macondo.” What kind of windmills did you find yourself tilting at in your time as chief scientific adviser? 

Many times I found the experience a bit surreal, hence the references. When you go into a very substantial organisation such as the European Commission, there will be resistance to the introduction of a new post, particularly when that new post has as a remit to be challenging. What I was doing when people were developing policy was to ask “Where is the evidence for that, where did you get the evidence, is it the most credible evidence, is there any weakness in the evidence, where is the uncertainty, how are you dealing with the uncertainty?” Those things appeared quite challenging and so a lot of people in the Commission felt that this is just one more problem they had to deal with.

Although people would be outwardly very pleasant to me and apparently very supportive I was often excluded at the working end. Sometimes that was inadvertent, but sometimes it might have been deliberate. It was a slightly surreal kick-back from people who found it hard to absorb a new challenging role within the Commission at a very high level, because I answered directly to President Barroso. So those were some of the flailing windmills I had to deal with. But having said that, the overall impression was quite wonderful. I think the Commission is full of highly talented people who generally are all working towards a common goal. That’s not always the case in many very large institutions. It’s quite wonderful to be part of something where everybody had a common goal, which was what is the best for the European Union.

"If we had the trust of citizens, the demand for innovation would be enormous."

Does the European Commission make full use of the talents available within it?

What was a little bit depressing was that with all this quality at your fingertips there was still – again you find it in many big institutions – not much appetite for taking risk, for looking at really innovative and different things to do. That’s maybe because there was a little bit of a blame culture in the Commission. If something went wrong people would be very quick to point the finger, but if something went right they didn’t equally point the finger so that people got praise. If you’re working in an environment like that, most people tend to do middle of the road stuff that’s not going to upset anybody. The Commission struggles from the fact that it has grown organically throughout the period of enlargement of the European Union, and it hasn’t thought about restructuring. There would be advantage in looking at how the Commission is organised, what the daily working practices are, and thinking about how to make the structures of the Commission innovative and fit for the 21st century.

Because when you don’t pay attention to big institutions and they get larger and larger, you don’t have something that’s truly efficient. And when you want an organisation to be underpinning innovation in the European Union, it’s quite hard to be promoting and delivering instruments for innovation when you yourself are not innovative. So the Commission’s got a continual challenge to see what it can do to change. Also I’m a very impatient person and I was frustrated at the length of time it took to do anything. Of course there needs to be consultation for many things, but for somethings internally in the Commission people just need to get better organised and deliver more quickly. You need efficient government.

What are your thoughts on the mistrust among some NGOs towards your role and towards GM technology?

I think a lot of the responsibility for people’s lack of trust in GM comes down to how the technology was used by some big multinational companies. In particular, Monsanto chose a very bad use of the technology for first introduction, which was to modify a seed sold by the company that would be resistant to a particular herbicide, also sold by the company. It was probably a very smart business plan but it wasn’t a very good one from the point of view of the consumer, because when it comes to innovations the consumer always asks an important question: “what’s in it for me?” In this case, the citizens couldn’t see what was in it for them. They saw what was in it for Monsanto, and asked themselves “what’s the primary motivator for a company?Making profit and producing dividends for shareholders.” That is not necessarily in the citizen’s mind a benefit to them. Now you could argue that there is a benefit for citizens because as companies prosper they will employ people, they become profitable, the dividend is shared about.

But people remain very suspicious of the motives of business and particularly the use of GM. Because it is subject to extraordinarily tight regulation, the only people who can be involved in trying to commercialise any GM crop technology are the very big multinational companies and it’s those same multinational companies who don’t enjoy the trust of citizens. So in a way the two things have become linked. People are fearful of the technology and they know very little about it, and they are also misinformed about it because they don’t understand it. They just think “I don’t what people tampering with my food. Its sounds bad and it sounds like it’s being controlled by these big companies, so it’s not for me.” It’s not a reasoned, evidence-based argument, it’s more of a gut feeling.

How do you react to the charge expressed by Greenpeace that the post of chief scientific adviser concentrates too much influence in one person?

I think it’s hypocritical of Greenpeace to say that. Dr Doug Paar is the chief scientist of Greenpeace in the UK. Why is it ok for Greenpeace to have a chief scientist and not the European Commission? I’m very supportive in general of NGOs but what we must understand is that these are campaigning organisations and sometimes the evidence is inconvenient to them. It’s inconvenient in terms of where they raise their funds and the philosophy of the organisation. Greenpeace never thought I was problematic when I was talking about climate change because they agree with what I talked about, which was the science demonstrating human influence in rapid climate change. But when I say that the technology to produce GM crops is safe, they try to discredit my position because they didn’t like the evidence I was quoting.

But it was the same credible evidence that underpins our understanding of human influence on climate change. Why are they discriminating one against another? It’s because they’re a campaigning organisation, they have a philosophy and I think they are inconsistent in terms of how much they value evidence. There were a number of NGOs who were very supportive of me in other areas – perhaps they are smaller NGOs and so they didn’t get as much attention as when Greenpeace spoke out because obviously they’re very big and very well known.

“The Commission is full of highly talented people who generally are all working towards a common goal. That’s not always the case in many very large institutions.”

Was there a failure to communicate the remit of the position of chief scientific adviser?

Yes, I think there was and it’s because there had never been a chief scientific adviser post before in the Commission. When I arrived I went through a lot of negotiations with the Commission and President Barroso himself in terms of what my role would be. It would have been better if across the Commission there had been an in-depth discussion of exactly what the remit and scope of the role would be before the post was filled. And the resources available to me when I arrived were rather minimal compared to what had been discussed beforehand.

Of course, there was an economic crisis in Europe at the time and the Commission did not want to be seen to be making big investments in new areas. I fought hard to have a website and I made it quite transparent on the website what my role was. And most or all of the people I interacted with including Greenpeace understood very clearly that I did not influence policy.

What were your proudest achievements in your time at the European Commission?

When it was announced that President Juncker wasn’t going to continue with the role of chief scientific adviser I suppose – and you might think this a little odd – almost my proudest achievement was that there was such an outcry right across the EU and globally. The outcry came from research institutions and individual scientists; it came from many NGOs, from think tanks, from business organisations, from politicians and opinion formers, it wasn’t just one group of people.

I was really proud that in a very short period of time myself and my team managed to make such an impact that when President Juncker said no, I’m not going ahead with a chief scientific adviser role, there was such unhappiness.

The challenge for the Commission is to make that advice transparent, because transparency is fundamental for trust.”

Now that the role of chief scientific adviser has been abolished, how should the European Commission be advised on scientific issues?

You’re right there isn’t a single individual, but the Commission and President Juncker have developed something called the Scientific Advice Mechanism. These are seven highly credible, trusted scientists who are engaged 20 per cent of their time with the Commission in order to be able to fulfil an advisory role in science. In addition to that we shouldn’t forget that the Commission has the Joint Research Centre. It has 3000 employees, and about 2500 of those are active scientists, and they have a budget of a third of a billion euros per annum. They are the Commission’s in-house science service, producing evidence and briefings on a broad range of areas.

So we should not think that the European Commission is without science advice. The challenge for the Commission is to make that advice transparent, because transparency is fundamental for delivering trust. You need to know where the advice is coming from, and what the basis for that advice is, what are the sources, who are you talking to, what assumptions have you made, what uncertainty is there. The Scientific Advice Mechanism has promised to publish the minutes of their first meeting on the web so people can understand what they’re talking about and why.

And that’s fundamental to trust. Trust is always going to be a challenge for business because businesses often think that they need to be confidential around areas because of reasons of future success. Actually they should revisit that because there’s an awful lot that business does that’s fairly generic and they don’t need to be so confidential. By being secretive people are naturally concerned. Business and government need to work terribly hard to regain the trust of citizens because governments don’t have it, and business doesn’t have it and that makes our democracy rather fragile. If we had the trust of citizens, the demand for innovation would be enormous and it could revolutionise the prospects for our future. So there’s a big prize there.

Interview by David Phillips

Anne Glover

Dame Anne Glover was chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission from 2012 to 2014. The role involved the provision of independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the president of the European Commission. She also acted as an ambassador for European science, both promoting and communicating the benefits and values of science in Europe. The chief scientific adviser post was abolished in November 2014 and the Scientific Advice Mechanism was developed in its place by the Commission. Currently, she is vice principal for external affairs and dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen, having previously served there as professor of molecular biology and cell biology. Between 2006 and 2011 she was the first chief scientific adviser for Scotland, for which she was awarded a CBE. Dame Anne is an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of Biology, the Royal Society of Arts, and the American Society for Microbiology. She received a damehood in 2015 in the Queen’s birthday honours.