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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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Scientific scrutiny in Europe is essential

We and many organisations across Europe have written to President elect of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker to ask him not to abolish the post of Chief Scientific Advisor. Our letter is in response to a call from environmental NGOs to “scrap this position.” We strongly object to this proposal and to any attempt to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice received at the highest level of the European Commission. We wanted to respond quickly so we have sent the letter.

The letter to Mr Juncker is now closed and the final list of 40 organisations and 773 individuals has been sent to him, many thanks to everyone who signed it. If you feel strongly about this, please write to Mr Juncker yourself.

Many other organisations are sending their own letters including nine European medical research organisations, the European Plant Science Organisation representing 227 public research institutions across Europe and the European Federation for Science Journalism.

Dear Mr Juncker

We write to you with some urgency in response to a letter you will have just received from nine NGOs urging you to abolish the position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission. The letter, which includes Greenpeace as a signatory as well as other prominent NGO voices, alleges that the "post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic" and asks you to "scrap this position"1.

As organisations and individuals who share a commitment to improving the evidence available to policy makers, we cannot stress strongly enough our objection to any attempt to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice received at the highest level of the European Commission. The mandate of the Chief Scientific Advisor is to "provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the President"2. We would reassert the fundamental value of this role, which is already minimally resourced for the task of improving the use of evidence in policymaking - a goal that attracts strong support across Europe. We would further defend the record of Professor Anne Glover in having delivered impartial and rigorous advice as she is mandated to do in this role. Some of us will be writing to you individually in more detail on these points and on the background to the recognised need for that role and others have written to you previously.

We note that the nine NGOs are opposing not just this position in general but specifically because they disagree with Professor Glover's advice on genetically modified crops and organisms. Professor Glover’s advice can only be based on the conclusions of leading scientific bodies, which is - in the words of a recent European Commission report, that "GMOs are no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies"3. This fundamental conclusion is reiterated by, among others, the scientific academies of Africa, Europe and elsewhere, the World Health Organisation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science4.

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.

Finally, with respect to any organisations engaged in shaping policies in Brussels, we would hope that they would welcome rather than oppose independent evidence-based scrutiny of those policies.

For European citizens to have confidence in the way our institutions evaluate and develop policy, they need to be assured that there is access to independent scientific advice at the highest level and that this independence is not compromised.

Yours, on behalf of our organisations,

Professor Jos WM van der Meer, President, European Academies' Science Advisory Council

Professor Sierd Cloetingh, President, Academia Europaea

Professor Paul Hardaker, Chair, Sense About Science

Sir Richard Sykes, Chair, the Royal Institution

Professor James Wilsdon, Chair, Campaign for Social Science

Mr Hetan Shah, Executive Director, Royal Statistical Society

Professor Mark J Bailey, Director, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Professor Nigel Brown, President, Society for General Microbiology

Dr Mark Downs FSB, Chief Executive, Society of Biology

Ms Kate Baillie, Chief Executive, Biochemical Society

Professor David Webb, President-Elect, British Pharmacological Society

These organisations have added their names since the letter went live:

Professor Günter Stock, President, All European Academies

Dr Sarah Main, Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering

Dr Helen Ferrier, Chief Science Adviser, National Farmers' Union

Em Professor Marc Van Montagu, Chairman, Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach, VIB-UGent, Belgium

Miss Ellen Maxwell, Postgraduate researcher, Institute of Food Research

The Hon David Parker, Director, Model Farm Partnership

Mr Robert Lasseter, Farmer, Corton Farm Partnership

Dr Ed Long, Committee member, Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists

Dr Andree Carter, Director, UKCDS (UK Collaborative on Development Sciences)

Cissi Billgren Askwall, Secretary General, Vetenskap & Allmänhets (Public & Science), Sweden

Dr Simon Vaughan, Head of International Programmes, Rothamsted Research

Professor David Hume, Director, The Roslin Institute

Professor Josef Glössl, President, Austrian Association of Molecular Life Sciences and Biotechnology (ÖGMBT)

Professor Heather Wallace, President, British Toxicology Society

Dr Pino Zappalà, Extramuseum, Italy

Professor Christine Dodd, President, Society for Applied Microbiology

Em Professor Marc Van Montagu, President, European Federation of Biotechnology

Ms Sarah Norcross, Director, Progress Educational Trust

Dr Edward Sykes, Chair, Stempra committee (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine Public Relations Association)

Dr Robert Parker, Chief Executive, Royal Society of Chemistry

Professor Tim Arnett, Secretary, European Calcified Tissue Society

Professor Bojin Bojinov, Dean, Faculty of Agronomy, Agricultural University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Dr Karin Ljung, Researcher, Associate professor, Deputy dean, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

Professor Manuel Pedro Salema Fevereiro, President, Center for Biotechnology Information

Professor Noel B Salazar, President, European Association of Social Anthropologists

Dr Lynn Kamerlin, Chair, Young Academy of Europe

Professor Ian Diamond, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, and Dr Kenneth Skeldon, Head of Public Engagement with Research, University of Aberdeen

Professor Dr Wolfgang Nellen, President, German Life Science Association (VBIO)

Professor Charles Spillane, Chair of Plant Science, Plant & AgriBiosciences Research Centre (PABC), National University of Ireland Galway

Mr Aidan Gilligan, Founder / CEO, SciCom - Making Sense of Science

See the individuals who have added their name here.


BBC Radio 4 Today Programme (Starting: 1 hour 10 mins) 

The Guardian War of letters over call to abolish EC scientific adviser role

The Times Greens turn on academics over GM crops (£)

New Scientist Don't scrap Europe's chief scientific adviser

The Guardian Scientific advisers should be supported not sacked

Forbes Green groups go to war on scientific reform in Europe

The BMJ Top scientists criticise move to axe scientific adviser to European Commission (£)

Cosmos European science under siege

The Pharmaceutical Journal Row over calls to abolish the role of chief scientific adviser for the European Commission

Der Tagesspiegel Umweltorganisationen drängen Jean-Claude Juncker zu Verzicht auf Berater (£)

The Lancet EC Chief Scientific Adviser position gets strong backing

4 See http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/climateGMOconsensus.pdf for a list and a comparison with consensus positions on climate change.