LONDON—In a sometimes tense briefing, Anne Glover spoke to reporters yesterday about the ups and downs of her tenure as first chief science adviser of the European Commission. The Scottish microbiologist defended herself against long-standing charges of partisan advocacy for genetically modified (GM) crops, a lack of transparency in her office, and she touted several accomplishments.
Glover was appointed in 2011 by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who created the position of chief science adviser. She won plaudits for her energy and enthusiasm, but the structure of the position posed severe constraints. Exactly why the next commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, eliminated the position this past November remains a mystery. Her office effectively shut down, but Glover remained on the payroll until this month. After clearing out her desk, Glover came to the Wellcome Trust yesterday to speak to a half-dozen reporters in a briefing organized by the Science Media Centre. She framed her experiences as “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
The ugly first. Glover talked at length about her frustration with the "lack of honesty" among opponents of GM crops. "It is not reasonable to present one-sided arguments," she said. Nongovernmental organizations called for her position to be abolished last year, accusing her of bias—a charge she rejected. But she said: "I can't invent balance" when it’s inconsistent with the scientific evidence.
Glover expressed concerns about “the polarization of argument” with GM organisms (GMOs) and other controversial topics, but she clearly hadn’t helped matters in 2013 when she discussed GMOs at a conference in Scotland, most controversially calling opposition to the technology “a form of madness.” That incident led to a testy exchange with a reporter from The Times at yesterday’s briefing.
“Do you regret saying that opposing GMOs is a form of madness?” the reporter asked.
“Why did you ask that?” Glover responded. “I don't know what to say to you. The language is immaterial here. What's important is that we be honest about the evidence.”
Glover said she didn’t regret the remark, and the reporter later pressed the question. “Opposition to GM is a form of madness … that sounds like a rather unscientific thing to say,” he said.
“In addition to being a scientist, I'm also a human being,” Glover responded. “I use the rich variety of the English language. The use of words expressed my frustration.”
Glover has disputed claims that her staunch defense of the safety and utility of GMOs led to the elimination of her position. And at the briefing she said the move was never explained to her. "No reason was given to me," she said. "I've had no contact with the new presidency or the new team."
Another clear source of frustration for Glover was an accusation that her office was not transparent. Advice to Barroso was kept confidential at his request, she said. Her staff of six published many documents and responded to freedom of information requests as well as it could. In addition, she declared potential conflicts of interest, even though she was not required to.
As for the merely bad parts of her time, Glover described disappointments working on the fringes of an enormous bureaucracy. "I sort of expected everyone would turn up and say 'a science adviser: How will that help me?' " Glover recalled. Instead, “a lot of people thought: 'Why do we need a science advisor?' " (The United Kingdom is one of few E.U. member states that has a single science adviser. In most other European countries, science academies or advisory committees play that role.) Glover said that if she had it to do over again, she would have spent the months before she arrived in office setting up clear expectations about interactions between her office and the rest of the commission.
An unresolved issue is how science advice should be given to the European Commission. Glover hinted, sharply, that the job description should change: “There's a real opportunity here for the commission to be more innovative. The commission has made a strong statement that it wants to support innovation and jobs. But it's hard to support innovation if you are not innovative.” But it wasn’t clear exactly what she thinks should change, besides finding a way to provide “a more open and explicit procuring of evidence” to policymakers, a goal she has previously described.
Despite saying she enjoyed the experience overall, Glover repeated a frequent criticism: “I think we need to demand a lot of our politicians and leaders. Sometimes they hide behind evidence or miscall evidence, [saying] that we don't have enough to do something. Climate change, for example: the evidence is compelling, but our response to that needs to be compelling.”
At the same time, Glover declined to comment on how science will fare under Juncker’s presidency, which has proposed to divert €2.7 billion from the European Commission’s main research fund, called Horizon 2020, into an economic stimulus fund. “We should remember that the Horizon 2020 budget was one of the few that was increased,” she said. “It's hard to tell how it will pan out with his recognition of the value of science.”
Glover also highlighted her accomplishments. She said they included:
Setting up an informal network of European science advisers, now representing 16 nations, to improve best practices and build consensus.
Creating a Science and Technology Advisory Council to provide reports on "overarching societal questions" to the president of the European Commission.
Creating networks among science advisers to various E.U. agencies as well as staff involved in "horizon scanning" activities.
Building bridges with science academies to help them make their policy-relevant reports more timely.
After an hour, staff of the Science Media Centre quickly hustled Glover out of the room through a side door.