Groups opposed to genetically modified crops want the European Commission to drop its chief science adviser. Bad idea, says science advocate Síle Lane
If you can’t change the science, change the scientists. This is what nine groups opposed to genetically modified organisms want to do according to their letter to the incoming President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, urging him to scrap the role of his chief scientific adviser (CSA).
The groups – including Greenpeace – disagree with the advice that British professor of biology Anne Glover, the current CSA, has given to the commission on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
They told Juncker that the commission should take its advice “from a variety of independent, multidisciplinary sources with a focus on the public interest” and that Glover shouldn’t be listened to because hers is just one opinion.
No matter that Glover is herself advised by hundreds of European research organisations and the Joint Research Council, academies and learned societies from across the sciences and across the world, universities, expert committees, science associations and citizen science. No matter that her job is to independently assess the totality of evidence for questions the commission’s president asks her to answer. No matter that Glover has faithfully and accurately represented the strong scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs – that, in the words of a commission report, are “no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies”.
This is a position supported by every major scientific institution in the world, and all the scientific academies of countries and regions, but denied by the anti-GMO lobby, which promotes its own alternative “consensus” of a small ragtag group of academics out on the fringes of the mainstream.
The groups describe the adviser’s role as “unaccountable, intransparent and controversial” but haven’t set out what they mean by that. Glover, who was formerly Scotland’s chief scientist, is the first person to hold the role of European chief scientific adviser. It was introduced by the outgoing president, José Manuel Barroso, to “provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the President”.
Barroso wanted to transform how European policy-makers use expert advice especially where there’s uncertainty and where policy-makers are trying to answer big questions society is facing. If those groups opposing this role have another way to ensure that evidence trumps lobbying clout when it comes to shaping and scrutinising policies then they should tell us what that is.
We signed a letter to Juncker yesterday along with other organisations and individuals who share a commitment to improving the evidence available to policy-makers. We want to make sure Juncker feels our outrage at any attempt to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice received at the highest level of the European Commission.
In polarised and divisive policy debates, as we have seen with climate change, it is all the more important that scientifically accurate and rigorous advice is given freely and without fear or favour. Policy-makers or lobbyists who seek to remove scientists because they don’t like their findings or advice do so at the peril of their citizens.
Síle Lane is director of campaigns at the science advocacy group Sense About Science
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