First E.U. Science Adviser: 'We Are Sitting On a Goldmine'

Risks and rewards. Glover worries that Europe's aversion to innovation could imperil its future in nanotechnology.

Scottish Government

Last month, Scottish microbiologist Anne Glover took office in Brussels as the first European chief scientific adviser (CSA). Glover will provide the European Commission with evidence-based policy advice and will be a European spokesperson on scientific issues; she reports directly to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

Glover, known as an excellent communicator, was the CSA for the Scottish government the past 5 years. During that period, she still spent one day a week on her own research in the field of biosensor technology at the University of Aberdeen, which has now given her a 3-year leave of absence. ScienceInsider talked to Glover yesterday; questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What made you decide to take this job?

A.G.: European science is excellent and from my point of view, looking at the future of Europe, science has to have as strong a voice as possible. My role is to raise the profile of our science both in Europe--because sometimes when you sit on a goldmine you don't realize it yourself—but also externally.

Q: How would you describe your new task?

A.G.: In very brief terms I would describe it as "big". But you can break it down into smaller pieces. We need youth to be considering their careers in science and engineering. We need the best possible evidence for policymaking. We need stories of what European science has led to. Too few people realize what our science spendings deliver: better technologies, improved healthcare, and better policies.

I am also concerned that many women are involved in the scientific process in the beginning, but they do not retain. We will be competing with other parts of the world and cannot afford to be losing so many people, in particular women.

More broadly, I am very interested in the attitude of European citizens towards risk. I consider risk as a positive word. In Europe, we need to have a more honest debate about risks and rewards and what new technologies can offer us.

Q: You mean Europe is too risk-adverse when it comes to new technologies?

A.G.: If you take people's opinions, for instance by looking at the Eurobarometer, people seem to be reluctant to accept innovative technologies. They are suspicious almost just because it's new, rather than thinking: "Oh this is new, I need to find out more about it so that I can judge." At the moment, we are way too much on the side of: "It is new I don't want it, not even discuss it." This leaves the door open for pressure groups which are against certain things and have a very loud voice. There should be more communication about the rewards of the technologies. I would like to balance that.

Q: Are you talking about genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

A.G.: Yes, that is the most important example. In the beginning, decades ago, people were careful to get good regulations in place. Over time, it has been shown that GMO is not a risky technology. But people seem not to have all the information they need to make their own decision. It is not up to Europe to say: "You have to do this," but give the information and let them choose.

Q: Has communication been the problem?

A.G.: Yes. And if we have the same misinformation that was used around GMOs in the relatively new field of nanotechnology, we could severely disinhibit our ability to contribute to that market. That would be an enormous loss for Europe.

Q: What lessons did you learn as a CSA in Scotland?

A.G.: I noted it is very difficult to always base policy on evidence. I do appreciate that a lot more factors influence policy: ethical factors, social factors, economic factors. But where scientific evidence is not being used, there is an obligation for our policy makers and politicians to explain why they reject the evidence. I think as long as they do that, as long as there is transparency, I would be content with that.

Second, I was responsible for a campaign in Scotland which was called "Do something creative, do science." I believe science is the most creative thing you can do. We should break down those barriers to young people, so they can think "this is a cool thing to do," rather than a geeky thing.

Q: Will you do that in Brussels as well, start campaigns?

A.G.: I would very much like to explore how we can do this. We have 27 member states which all have their views on what they can and should do to promote science, but we can highlight the value of these things.

I would myself love to engage more in the media as well to spread the message about what happens in science. Currently there is gloom and doom about the financial situation. But in the end, how do we get out of this crisis? On the back of our greatness in science.

Q: How has your contact with Mr. Barroso been so far?

A.G.: I am meeting with the president very soon to discuss [my new job] and to get his view of the role as well. I have only been in function for 4 weeks. I am now meeting people to find out what can be done quickly and what might take a longer period of time.

Q: Do you have a team around you?

A.G.: It is very small at the moment. We need to be sensitive to the fact that at this time of [financial] restraint in Europe, you have to be careful with setting up large teams. On the other hand, there are existing teams within Europe, such as the Joint Research Centre, [the European Commission's in-house science service]. The scientists working there are natural partners for me.

Q: And is there a budget to deliver scientific evidence to policy makers?

A.G.: In a way we do not need a budget. There already is a policy process with time for discussions in the E.U. And there already is evidence available either from research funded by the E.U. itself or performed by the Joint Research Centre, which gathers evidence for policy. What we need is a strong and regular link between evidence generation and policy development.

Q: What tools will you use to get things done in the European bureaucracy?

A.G.: Well, evidence is the first thing. Persuasion is another. People need to be willing partners. And I need a loud voice, so that people will hear me. From 4 weeks of experience, I already found out there is a lot of delay in doing things here. I don't know whether it is an achievable goal to speed these things up in the 3.5 years I will be doing this job, but I will try.