THE EUROPEAN Commission is not known for its ability to unite public opinion and sure enough it was at its divisive best in November with the decision to scrap its most senior scientific position, that of chief scientific adviser (CSA).
The last incumbent, Professor Anne Glover, will not be replaced when she leaves office at the end of this month, spelling the end of a short-lived role that was created in 2012 in response to calls to strengthen scientific advice and evidence-based policy in Europe.
Greenpeace was vocal in lobbying for the removal of the role, arguing that it concentrated too much influence in one person; although the fact that the one person happened to be a known proponent of GM crops may have been just as strong a rationale for the pressure group (see page 6 Jan issue).
Where this leaves the much-vaunted principle of evidence-based policy is unclear. Science and policy are not always happy bedfellows, a point perhaps best demonstrated by Owen Paterson, who was notoriously reluctant to seek the counsel of scientists, most notably over climate change. Twelve months into his job as environment secretary it was revealed that Paterson had never been briefed by Sir Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at his own department.
Paterson is entitled to his view but his diffidence shouldn’t obscure the value of chief scientific advisers even if their role is perhaps of greater importance symbolically than in practice. In an ideal world, vested interests – whether those of businesses or pressure groups – would have no role in the formulation of policy, only its implementation, and policy would be left to politicians informed by the best available science. If only the world were that simple.
Of course, politicians have their agendas and biases as much as businesses and pressure groups – and all will happily distort evidence so that it shows exactly what they want it to show. However, the point remains that if the public are to have confidence that policy is based on evidence, this evidence must be guided by quality, impartial science.
Roles such as chief scientific advisers underpin democratic systems of governance and provide a conduit between science and policy. Without them we risk policy being determined by who can shout the loudest or, dare we say it, pay the most.