CHEM Trust, with over 20 other European civil society organisations, have today sent a letter to the President-Elect of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. In the letter we propose that the next Commission adopts a revised model of scientific advice, rather than the current single ‘Chief Scientific Officer’ approach.
The link between science and policy – and how uncertainty is understood and acted on – are key issues for any government or similar organisation. Many aspects of science are well understood, but in many areas of great controversy the science is subject to great uncertainty and dispute.
Science moves forward through such debate, with ideas that are now well established – like plate tectonics or the idea that most stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria – widely dismissed when they were first proposed. The debate continues in many other areas, such as on the risk of hormone disrupting chemicals, nanotechnology or the role of statins in preventative medicine.
One of the best examples of government failure when dealing with scientific uncertainty was in the UK, after a new disease had appeared in cattle – Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). One major question was whether this disease could spread to humans. For some years it was claimed that this was impossible, until the government in 1996 had to admit that in fact a new human disease, vCJD, was caused by exposure to BSE. They also had to admit that the public had not been properly protected from exposure to BSE; this disease has killed more than 100 people.
BSE and vCJD were a major failure of government, and led to a very extensive public enquiry, published in 2000, reviewing the failings that lead to the spread of CJD. Many recommendations where made on how to prevent this sort of case happening again.
The inquiry’s conclusions on scientific committees & on uncertainty are particularly relevant to the Commission Scientific Advisor discussions, notably:
- The composition of the committee should include experts in the areas of the advice that is likely to be required.
- Trust can only be generated by openness.
- Openness requires recognition of uncertainty, where it exists.
- The importance of precautionary measures should not be played down on the grounds that the risk is unproved.
- Scientific investigation of risk should be open and transparent.
- The advice and the reasoning of advisory committees should be made public.
Contrast this with the role of the Commission Scientific Advisor, who is one individual – not a committee with varying expertise and experience – but seems to have the power to over-rule other scientific advisory bodies. In addition, the current holder of the position – Anne Glover – believes that this post should operate in secret, with no disclosure of what the advisor is being asked to consider, nor of the advice they have given:
“Anne Glover, the EU’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has said that her opinions to the European Commission should remain independent from politics and therefore “not transparent” and immune from public scrutiny.”
As the letter points out, we – and many others – believe that any advice should be published, and that the Commission’s scientific advice shouldn’t be concentrated in one person, however good a scientist they are.