The role of the EU chief scientific advisor is currently conceived as that of an enlightened "philosopher-king" – challenging the democratic foundations of decision-making, says the Cancer Prevention and Education Society

Firing a new salvo in the battle over the position of chief scientific advisor in Europe is the Cancer Prevention and Education Society, in an interesting analysis below.

The row was kicked off by a joint letter from NGOs, including GMWatch and Earth Open Source, asking the new European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker to abolish the post of chief scientific advisor in the interests of transparency and objectivity.

Sense about scientific advisors

Part 1: A recent history
Health & Environment, 30 Sept 2014

* Part 1 of our series on scientific advice in the European Union. Here we document how the role of Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) is currently conceived by the European Commission and implemented by Anne Glover, namely CSA as “Philosopher-King”. Via recent historical examples we show how this conception of CSA both challenges the democratic foundations of decision-making, by allowing the decisions of policy-makers to be opposed or over-ridden by an unelected official, and fails to ensure evidence-based policy by putting too much influence on a position which is vulnerable to the attention of lobbying efforts. These considerations bring into question the desirability of the role of CSA.

In July this Summer, nine NGOs including the Cancer Prevention and Education Society signed on to a letter (Greenpeace et al. 2014a) urging Jean Claude Juncker, incoming President of the European Commission, to scrap the position of Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission (hereafter abbreviated as CSA).

This proposal did not exactly meet with universal approval. Sense About Science swiftly coordinated a letter equating the nine NGOs’ proposal to an “attempt to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice received at the highest level of the European Commission” (Sense About Science 2014b).

Within a week, Sense About Science’s letter had secured supporting signatures from 40 organisations and 773 individuals (Sense About Science 2014a). A letter to Juncker from nine medical research organisations including the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK requested that he maintain the position of CSA (Cancer Research UK 2014).

The Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists also wrote a letter sympathizing with the concerns raised but advocating development rather than abandonment of the CSA position (Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists 2014).

Much of the media commentary has also gone against the view of the NGOs, described variously as “war on scientific reform in Europe” (Butterworth 2014), a call to “scrap science” (Kuntz, Davison 2014), and a Nixon-like move to sack the purveyors of unwanted advice (Pielke Jr 2014).

It would therefore be fair to say that the viewpoint expressed in the letter, and reiterated in a second letter sent by 28 NGOs on 19 August (Greenpeace et al. 2014b), is swimming against the stream of current opinion.

The commentators and signatories calling for retention of the post are doing so because they like the idea of science playing a leading role in policy formation. It also appears that many of these individuals and organizations see it as virtually self-evident that anyone who wants policy decisions to better respond to available scientific evidence should also want a Chief Scientific Advisor: to want otherwise must either be mad (desirous of the flagrantly counter-productive) or bad (advocating self-interest over societal progress).

But is it really mad or bad to advocate the scrapping of the position of CSA to the European Commission? Or are things more complicated than that?

GMO opinions: advice vs. advocacy in government

Professor Anne Glover is the first and only Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Commission. Any mistakes are inevitably going to be hers and criticism of her opinions can easily be interpreted as being the result of a disagreement with her particular point of view, rather than deriving from general concerns about the function of the Chief Scientific Advisor within the EU Commission.

The first NGO letter’s focus on Glover’s statements on GMOs did not do enough to draw this distinction, making it too easy for many of the media commentators to interpret opposition to the post of CSA as being a case of “attacking the messenger” (Limb 2014).

However, not all the signatory organisations have a formal position on GM technology. This includes the Cancer Prevention and Education Society, authors of this article, and Corporate Europe Observatory, campaigners for transparency in politics. It is therefore untrue that all the signatories endorsed the letter because of disagreement with Anne Glover’s position on GMOs.

Rather, Glover’s statements on GMOs are just one particularly striking example of a general confusion about the role of CSA as embodied by her at this point in time: in this case, the difference between advisory and advocacy roles in government.

In a democracy, a distinction is drawn between elected government and the civil service. The government is a temporary institution which develops and promotes specific policies on the basis of electoral mandate, while the civil service is a permanent entity which exists to help elected officials effect their policy goals via the administration of public services, conduct of policy-relevant research, provision of communications support, advice on policy solutions, and so forth.

The distinction has to be drawn between the two in order to preserve the integrity of democratic government, between the machinery of the state and the people who represent the electorate (a sometimes awkward distinction often satirised in TV comedies such as Yes, Minister). This is because in a democracy an agent cannot make decisions on behalf of the populace if it is not accountable to it; since the guarantee of accountability is the ballot-box and the civil service is not elected, there is no constitutional mechanism by which the civil service has a mandate to make these decisions.

The threat is that, if the lines between the roles of civil servant and elected official become blurred, the unelected civil service ends up either illegitimately taking on decision-making powers of its own or using its privileged position to steer the policies of elected decision-makers. Democratic societies therefore take steps to prevent this from happening: for example, in the UK there is the Civil Service Code (UK Civil Service 2010) which sets out the limits within which civil servants are supposed to act.

The problem with Anne Glover’s interpretation of her role as Chief Scientific Advisor is that it appears to fail to draw sufficient distinction between civil servant and decision-maker. On the GM issue, Glover has said “it is unethical not to use GM technology”, a statement which goes some way beyond the giving of scientific advice, and that with regard to other novel plant breeding technologies “we shouldn’t make the mistake of regulating them to death as we have done with GM” (Euractiv 2013), an overt criticism of the EU regulatory approach to GM technology.

Glover has also advocated reopening debate on the precautionary principle, claiming it to be detrimental to “innovation” (Nuttall Jones 2013; Singhofen 2014), and also recommended a greater role for business in developing and reviewing evidence for policy-making (Glover, Müller 2013). Both of these are matters of policy.

Glover has also endorsed the views of the Energy Commissioner over the Climate Commissioner on shale gas, saying “from my point of view the evidence will allow us to go ahead [with shale gas extraction]” and that “we should not go into a denial phase” (Fleming 2013), statements interpreted by the gas industry as giving “a nod” to shale gas extraction (Natural Gas Europe 2013).

The important difference in each of these cases is the apparent failure to observe the distinction between a CSA advising a politician on what they think is the correct course of action and stating in public the course of action they believe a politician should be following: the former is advice which is heeded or not at the politician’s discretion; the latter is overt pressure, applied to secure a particular policy outcome.

Each time a scientific advisor uses the authority of their position to advocate for specific policy interventions, there is a question as to whether or not this is a civil servant steering a decision-making process which should be in the hands of the elected decision-makers, and therefore whether or not the advisor’s influence is in accord with democratic principles of government. This is the issue with Glover’s interventions in the policy areas described above.
Science – on top or on tap?

The problem is, politicians often defy scientific advice and evidence in the course of developing and advocating specific policies. Examples range from MP David Tredinnick’s ongoing commitment to homeopathy and his claims that the phase of the moon affects surgery outcomes (Henderson 2013), to the sacking of drugs policy advisor Professor David Nutt for his claims that ecstasy and LSD are less harmful than alcohol (Tran 2009), and the very serious errors during the BSE crisis in handling evidence of potential harm to humans from infected beef (The BSE Inquiry 2000).

The natural thought is that something should be done to prevent this. Surely, as Anne Glover herself has pointed out (Euractiv 2012; Simon 2014), there is a need for scientific advisors to stop politicians developing policy “not based on evidence”, or at least draw attention to when this is happening? A CSA’s interventions might blur the lines between civil servant and elected official, but so long as they are speaking on behalf of the science, surely this blurring should be tolerable?

As intuitively appealing as it might be, the problem with answering this question in the affirmative is that it gives CSAs a good deal of power over the political elite which employs them. If a CSA can, on the basis of their concerns about use of evidence, stop policy processes then they become answerable neither to the government nor the populace which elects them (since the government is now answerable to the CSA), but instead answerable only to the evidence and scientific reasoning which they are supposed to introduce to the political process.

This is what US political scientist Roger Pielke Jr calls the “Philosopher King” model of scientific advice (Pielke Jr 2012), after Plato’s model of ideal governance in which the perfectly just state is governed by an enlightened King who rules according to the dictates of reason and wisdom, uplifting the populace by protecting them from their own ill-conceived thoughts and desires.

This notion of placing science on top in the regulatory relationship is a common one. It is consistent with one description Anne Glover has herself given of her role as CSA, saying her brief evokes a superwoman “flying through the treetops of Brussels” (Kupferschmidt 2013).

Interpretations of the CSA as Philosopher-King are found in the European Risk Forum’s proposal that the CSA “should be at a level equivalent to that of a Director-General of the European Commission” (European Risk Forum 2014) and Business Europe’s recommendations that the CSA be given “the mandate to act independently” and to “voice scientific evidence in the Commissions decision-making process” with it being incumbent on the Commission to “lay out its argumentation, in case it chooses to overrun the official scientific opinion” (Business Europe 2014).

The problem with setting CSAs up as Philosopher Kings is that it puts them beyond the control of the political classes who are elected to make decisions, formalising the transgression of the boundary which is supposed to be kept clear by the civil service code of practice. Those who hold that this is fine, so long as the CSA always represents the evidence, would do well to be reminded that in practice giving so much power to someone who is not democratically accountable is at least as likely to weaken the system as strengthen it.

Glover’s involvement in development of EU policy on endocrine disruptors is illustrative of the pitfalls which can open when the distinction between advisor and decision-maker is made insufficiently clear.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals

The regulation of chemicals suspected of being endocrine disruptors (EDCs) is politically highly-charged. The first draft framework for regulating EDCs was supposed to be published by the European Commission’s DG Environment in the summer of 2013.

On 18 June 2013, shortly before the framework was due to be published, a group of toxicology journal editors signed a joint open letter to Anne Glover about the regulatory proposal. The letter accompanied an editorial titled “Scientifically unfounded precaution drives European Commission’s recommendations on EDC regulation, while defying common sense, well‐established science and risk assessment principles”, which was published in four toxicology journals and authored by 18 journal editors (Dietrich et al. 2013).

The letter described the (as yet unpublished) framework as being “based on virtually complete ignorance of all well-established and taught principles of pharmacology and toxicology” and of “avoiding asking for support from the European Commission’s own scientific expert committees”. The purpose, according to Daniel Dietrich, architect of the open letter and professor of human and environmental toxicology at the University of Konstanz, Germany was to draw attention to how “we cannot create a regulation that is completely distinct from that for all other compounds that we regulate today” (Davies 2013).

In response, Anne Glover wrote on 20 June 2013 to Karl Falkenberg, Director-General of DG Environment, about the “strong criticism of the approach taken by the Commission on endocrine disruptors” by these “very eminent experts”. The letter, copied to the office of EU President José Manuel Barroso, asked for clarification as to whether it was “correct that advice from EFSA was ignored” and whether “the impact of the foreseen legislation has been assessed”, among other points (Glover 2013).

Subsequently, the EDC framework was shelved by the European Commission pending an impact assessment of the proposals, which has yet to be completed (Horel 2014).

The open letter and accompanying editorial sparked a furious response from a number of environmental health researchers, published on 27 August 2013 (Bergman et al. 2013). As a result, Anne Glover convened a meeting between representatives of the two sides of the debate, at which the letter authors dropped many of their claims including “the necessary existence of a threshold [of effect for] … agents including EDCs” with areas of disagreement being described as “uncertainties rather than dissent” (Chynoweth 2013, 2014).

What happened here is that, on the prompting of a particular interest group, the EU Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor intervened unilaterally in a regulatory process, calling into question the integrity of DG Environment’s process for drawing up the draft framework; to add some irony to the mix, the scientific claims on which the process was called into question were then more-or-less withdrawn by the letter authors at the meeting in October 2013.

The EDC example is therefore illustrative of two difficulties. Firstly, the implication is that, in her position as CSA, Anne Glover has a mandate to question the legitimacy of a political process, that she can do so acting independently of the Commission, and therefore that European Commission Directorate-Generals are answerable to her in how they conduct themselves, at least insofar as their work involves the use of scientific evidence.

On EDCs, there was already an agreed process in place which predated Glover’s appointment, that a draft proposal be developed by DG Environment and put forward for consultation. Anne Glover’s intervention, on the basis of a letter from a particular stakeholder group, interrupted this. The result was that a small number of people with apparently privileged access to a process (given that the framework was unpublished) were able to influence the publication for wider consultation of a proposal of high interest to other chemical policy stakeholders, hijacking the process by persuading the CSA effectively into acting on their behalf.

The second issue is this example shows how a CSA rather than being infallible has little reliable immunity to the lobbying efforts and cognitive biases that their appointment is supposed to cure: Glover’s intervention in the political process was triggered not by scientific evidence but by a letter from a group of toxicologists with a very particular view of how EDCs should be regulated (Horel, Bienkowski 2013) on the basis of claims that, regardless of their eminence, were quickly withdrawn when scrutinised in public.

In the case of EDCs it therefore seems that, rather than shoring up policy against specific interests, the installation of a powerful CSA has provided a clear target for lobbying efforts; instead of producing evidence-based policy, the result was exactly the sort of outcome which the appointment of a CSA is supposed to prevent, i.e. the subsuming of a broad political process to the ambitions of a specific interest group touting a selective and controversial body of evidence.

From a democratic point of view it would be a different kettle of fish if, instead of responding to the original letter-writers by directly communicating their concerns to DG Environment, Glover had voiced her concerns to President Barroso and it had been his decision to question DG Environment’s process: Barroso is an elected decision-maker and has a mandate to do this (even if the decision is based on bad advice).

This might suggest that the role of CSA can be made compatible with the democratic principles we have outlined in this article simply by ensuring that CSAs follow a code of conduct where they give advice. This would amount to refraining from advocating for specific policy approaches and ensuring they are answerable to elected decision-makers instead of being given their own decision-making powers. In the UK, just such guidance has already been developed (UK Government Office for Science 2010, 2011).

What we will do in the next issue of H&E is argue this is not sufficient, that the reforms required to further the integration of science into policy-making in the EU constitute a much more complex problem than can be addressed by ensuring CSAs abide by a particular code of practice.