On tap, but not on top. This was how Winston Churchill famously saw the role of scientists in government, and of course he was right. It is for politicians to decide, and for scientists to advise.
It was always expected that Anne Glover, the first Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, would have to step down when her boss Jose Manuel Barroso left office, but abolishing her post completely after just two years has angered the scientific establishment in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
Professor John Hardy, a distinguished neuroscientist at University College London, summed up the mood: “It is a sad fact that often the last thing politicians like is rational advice.”
Professor Glover, a cell biologist at Aberdeen University, attempted to set up a pan-European system of scientific advice that can be seen as truly independent of what she described as “the political imperative”.
Earlier this year she raised a hypothetical example of how politicians or European officials could wrongly go about seeking scientific advice to justify a particular policy decision. “Let’s imagine a commissioner over the weekend thinks ‘let’s ban the use of credit cards in the EU because credit cards lead to personal debt’. So that commissioner will come in on Monday morning and say, ‘find me the evidence that demonstrates that this is the case’,” Professor Glover said.
The problem with this approach is that there is every incentive for the commissioner’s staff to do just that, to find that credit cards lead to personal debt even though this may not necessarily be the case. Hardly the best evidence base, she added.
Europe already has an in-house science service in the form of its Joint Research Centre with a staff of 3,000. However, it was supposed to be the chief scientist’s job to provide an independent overview, and to sort out the scientific wheat from the non-scientific chaff. With that post abolished, Europe now appears to have lost this voice of scientific reason.Reuse content