EU scraps science advisor role – now are you happy, Greenpeace?

The European Commission has now confirmed officially what was last week leaked – that the Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) role is not being renewed by the incoming Juncker commission. The CSA website has already been taken down, and – as the James Wilsdon writes in the Guardian – it is not clear that the outgoing CSA Professor Anne Glover (who leaves in January) will even be allowed to attend scientific meetings she herself set up.

This is a dark day for science in Europe. Instead of having scientific advice at the heart of European policymaking, the Juncker Commission clearly wants to remove any person who might bring inconvenient scientific truths to the top EU table. Sadly, this is all too consistent with European moves to back away from evidence-based policymaking – if you can’t change the science you muzzle the scientists or keep them out of the room when powerful people are taking decisions.

So how did it come to this? Who are the villains of the piece? Step forward Greenpeace, whose European unit signed a letter along with a veritable rogues gallery of anti-GMO campaign groups demanding the role be abolished in July this year. To quote:

We are aware that business lobbies urge the Commission to continue with the practice established by Mr Barroso and even to strengthen the chief adviser’s formal role in policy making. We, by contrast, appeal to you to scrap this position. The post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration.

So according to Greenpeace and its pals, only business is pro-science. NGOs are… well, you decide. The letter then reveals what has triggered this campaign against science by the green NGO community:

To the media, the current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety whereas this claim is contradicted by an international statement of scientists…

In other words, Anne Glover needed to be sacked because her advice and public statements accurately represented the worldwide scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. Instead, Greenpeace et al advance a ‘no consensus’ position which is eerily reminiscent of that put forward by climate change deniers.

For the avoidance of doubt, Greenpeace UK in fact confirmed this no-consensus claim to me only a few days ago on Twitter:

So who should the Juncker Commission be taking its scientific advice from? Why, the NGOs of course – many of which are lavishly funded by that very same European Commission! (Though not Greenpeace, I should make clear.) As the letter put it, not even very coyly:

We hope that you as the incoming Commission President will decide not to nominate a chief scientific adviser and that instead the Commission will take its advice from a variety of independent, multi-disciplinary sources, with a focus on the public interest. We remain at your disposal if you wish to receive more detailed explanations of our concerns.

This is a sad turn of events not only for science in EU policymaking, but also for science in European environmentalism. Since when did environmental groups, whose campaigns on issues like climate change always contain frequent references to “the science” lobby to remove scientists from the halls of power? How can anyone take seriously Greenpeace’s claims to be science-led and evidence-based when it lashes out against scientists who challenge its ideology even at the expense of damaging the fundamental interests of the entire European scientific community? Whoever took this decision in Greenpeace should hang their head in shame today.

What is even more dispiriting is that this NGO-led campaign against science in Europe is already paying dividends. Earlier this week the European Parliament – informed no doubt by perpetual lobbying from the Brussels-based, EU-funded green groups – voted to allow nation states to implement indefinite GMO cultivation bans without the need to provide any meaningful scientific evidence, and to do so in the face of any advice they might receive from the scientists at the European Food Safety Authority. Science in policy is duly abolished at all levels, just as the NGOs demanded. Are you happy now, Greenpeace?

But look – who else is celebrating the decision to abolish the European science advisor role? The climate sceptics, who hated Anne Glover’s equally accurate advice on the serious danger of climate change just as much as the greens hated her scientifically-accurate views on GMOs. It looks like Greenpeace has found itself with some uncomfortable but rather apt new bedfellows.

Update:

There has been a strong expert reaction from scientists and the scientific community, a few responses from which are captured in this Science Media Centre list of quotes.

Update 2:

Greenpeace has responded on Twitter:

41 comments

  1. Klaus Ammann says:

    Really a sad decision, but according to Junckers remarks before his election: “we must respect peoples opinions on GMOs” and his whole opportunistic attitude this had to be expected.

    We only can hope, that Juncker himself is sacked for his own criminal promotion of tax frauds (going into the billions) in his Luxembourg time.as Prime Minister.

    Klaus

    our letter from PRRI also did not help, alas…

    http://www.prri.net/prri-letter-president-elect-european-commission-chief-science-advisors/

  2. Marco Nuti says:

    The Holy Inquisition of Galileo’s discoveries is dated four centuries ago….

  3. Clyde Davies says:

    A victory for ignorance, bigotry and vested interests everywhere.

  4. Might I suggest that the appointment as a scientific advisor to a politico-economic union of 28 member states is almost certain to end up being political rather than scientific.

    There is great pressure, not least from the UK, to devolve many of those decisions back to member states – that the EU has become overly controlling to the point that many feel is downright undemocratic meddling in national affairs.

    Yesterday (12 November, 2014), the EU Parliament moved closer to enabling national bans on GM crops. You may agree or disagree with that process but the plan could help reconcile anti- and pro-GM countries, unlock stalled approval processes, and lead to more GM crops in European fields—although many countries are likely to take the opportunity to further restrict them.

    http://news.sciencemag.org/environment/2014/11/e-u-moves-closer-enabling-national-bans-gm-crops

    The alternative is potentially for the EU to tear itself apart. It all reminds me of the stupid sacking of David Nutt in 2009 by the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson. Johnson wrote in a letter at that time to The Guardian, that “He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.” – unreasonable thought that may be.

    It is also worth noting that successful European science endeavours such as the ESA’s Rosetta project are not part of the EU. ESA is an intergovernmental organisation, whereas the EU is supranational. The two institutions have indeed different ranges of competences, different Member States and are governed by different rules and procedures.

    CERN is another european project that goes far beyond the political or physical limits of the EU.

    In some respects the EU, as with many of its member states, is very parochial.

    • Klaus Ammann says:

      Rosetta: fully agree, important developments have been achieved at the University of Bern, – and Switzerland is still not a member of the EU and most probably will never be..

    • Clyde Davies says:

      “Might I suggest that the appointment as a scientific advisor to a politico-economic union of 28 member states is almost certain to end up being political rather than scientific.”

      As if the decision-making process hadn’t been as politicized as it could be already? As long as science-based policy decisions are being made on an EU-wide basis, we need somebody with EU-wide clout to make sure that the science trumps the politics involved. Now we don’t have that person.

  5. This is really shameful. I can’t belief the EU is capable of decisions. How can it be scared of sound scientific advise. Maybe Europe does not need EU after all!

  6. Charles Versaggi says:

    http://academicsreview.org/reviewed-content/genetic-roulette/section-1/1-18-gm-peas-are-safe/

    “Smith wants to tell us how dangerous GM crops are and why we should avoid them. He reaches too far when he says that scientists would not normally have detected the potential allergenicity of this protein…”

  7. Mark
    I think its not enough to imply that Greenpeace (and perhaps you add other NGOs?) are anti-science. I think you need evidence. It is a crude characterisation and often used in a partisan and self-serving way. People who are anti-GMO may or may not be “anti-science” but personally I don’t know anyone who calls themselves anti-science. Most people who are opposed to GMOs for whatever reason are sceptics of individual research reports, papers, etc, but that is an honourable position. As Richard Feynman put it: “Science is a belief in the ignorance of experts”. If we didnt think our predecessors were wrong we wouldnt be scientists. Ultimately, your accusation (if you take your blog seriously) is a serious one and you should support it or retract it.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      After all the studies conducted on crop safety, and twenty years experience of growing these substances in the field, and the numerous statements by august scientific societies regarding the safety of GMOs, if someone still cleaves to the idea that these crops are inherently dangerous then it isn’t as a result of any scientific reasoning process. It’s as a result of turning one’s back on that process.

      Just because somebody doesn’t claim to be something doesn’t mean that they aren’t that thing. How many times have we heard the phrase ‘I’m not racist, but…’ ?

    • That twenty year experience, in my view, is that GMO crops often dont work as expected and this can have radical consequences: http://www.independentsciencenews.org/commentaries/roundup-ready-2-soybeans/

    • Clyde Davies says:

      That is one solitary example in a non-peer-reviewed website. It is flatly contradicted by this study http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0111629 which is a peer-reviewed meta-analysis of hundreds of studies, and goes on to state:

      “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.”

      That’s why we should have scientists and scientific advisors, instead of basing policy on your or any other activist’s ‘view’.

    • First Officer says:

      Soybean yield increase has tended to be linear, according to this:

      http://plantsci.missouri.edu/grains/soybean/graphs/USA-soy-history-yield.jpg

      What’s not shown is, to achieve that nearly constant rate, different techniques were employed over the last century. If we had stuck with, say, just fertilizing, as our primary technique, the yield curve would have topped out in the 1940’s. Each technique can only go so far and must be either supplanted or coupled with newer techniques to keep achieving higher results.

      As an example. Take human flight. Our first successes were balloons and gliders, then came engines and biplanes, then monoplanes, retractable landing gear, etc, etc. If we stopped using newer techniques, human flight would have simply topped out. But we didn’t and know we just landed a probe on a comet using ion engines to get there.

  8. An absolutely deplorable decision. Which countries have pressed for this? What justificatixon has been offered? What can we do to get it reversed? Somehow we need to create.a network of pro-science advocates across Europe to fight the flat-earthers and rabid greens.

  9. Marie Nyman says:

    So on top of the vote in the parliament on renationalisation of GM-crop cultivation the other day Juncker got rid of the chief scientific advisor.
    Sad days for EU!!

  10. Robert Wager says:

    “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

    Carl Sagan

    • NikFromNYC says:

      My best friend of 30 years worked as a grad student in Sagan’s lab, finding how terribly leaky his old Mars dust simulator was, not able to make the red stuff until being made professional, leaking toxic ozone into the lab before, likely giving Sagan his rare cancer, quite a combustible mixture of ignorance blowing up in Carl’s face indeed.

    • First Officer says:

      Here are the risk factors for Myelodysplastic syndrome, the root cause of Sagan’s death:

      http://www.cancer.org/cancer/myelodysplasticsyndrome/detailedguide/myelodysplastic-syndromes-risk-factors

      Ozone is not mentioned, only benzine and, “certain chemicals”, typically used by the petroleum industry. It seems chemotherapy is the worst risk factor, if order of listing denotes risk.

  11. NikFromNYC says:

    Mark you didn’t get the memo I see, from Jim Hansen’s replacement at NASA, Gavin Schmidt, begging promoters of climate alarm to STOP calling debate foes “deniers” for in loaded fashion it makes “a direct reference to the Holocaust”:

    http://tinypic.com/r/2lsehp2/5

    • Ike says:

      Schmidt can’t be serious surely. Are we to remove a word from the English language because it was used in the context of the holocaust? Climate change deniers are people who deny that there is any evidence that mankind is in the process of changing climate on a global scale. Other than being in denial in spite of evidence to the contrary, there is no relationship.

  12. Bluebell says:

    Well….money certainly didn’t buy this outcome….at last!

  13. GSW says:

    What’s with all this “worldwide scientific consensus” malarkey. GMO’s are not considered safe beacuse all the qualified people agree (they probably do) but because these things have to go thru regulated trials, see http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/safety/human_health/ for example.

    Saying it’s safe because everyone you think matters says so is just ignorant rubbish. Def Malarkey, meaningless talk; nonsense and I’ll add irrelavant to that definition too.

    What’s the next Lynas article – the “worldwide scientific consensus” on gravity because all the clever people say so.
    😉

    • Bas says:

      “Saying it’s safe because everyone you think matters says so…”
      Quite right!
      Until Chernobyl all nuclear scientists concluded that no reactor would explode, or only once in a million years.
      Now 4 reactors (3 at Fukushima, 1 at Chernobyl) have exploded after only 12000 reactor years, which is once in 3000years!

    • Clyde Davies says:

      Do you know how many people have died as a result of Chernobyl? Fifty-six. How many died as a result of Fukushima? Zero.

      Now, please put a figure on the number of deaths in mining disasters over the past ten years, would you?

  14. Bas says:

    A general Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) can only act as a political figure, as that advisor cannot have the needed deep scientific knowledge on all fields.
    It is already centuries ago that one person could have that.

    Each commissioner should decide whether he needs a scientific advisor(s), on a specialized field.

    So this is one of the few excellent decisions in Brussels!

  15. August Pamplona says:

    Since when did environmental groups, whose campaigns on issues like climate change always contain frequent references to “the science” lobby to remove scientists from the halls of power?

    You need a comma after ‘”the science”‘. It’s quite confusing to read without that comma.

    • Shub says:

      Since always. Pressure groups fight ‘for science’ to be on govt panels when it suits them and fight for them to be taken off when it doesn’t. There is a common thread between the two and that is the pressure groups’ agenda can be propped up using ‘science’ as an authority.

      The moves by Greenpeace would come as a surprise *only* to those who fail to see through this and instead imagine green pressure groups to be supportive of science in general. For example, Mark Lynas.

  16. Hengist McStone says:

    Since the EU is a massive bureaucracy, with it’s own political machinations, it’s difficult to be sure whether in the long run the world will be a better place with or without the Chief Scientific Advisor. But it would seem Greenpeace are sure, that strikes me as over confidence . Greenpeace have sure left themselves wide open for criticism here. They are supposed to be an environmental pressure group campaigning for a simple common good. I’m not saying the decision making process of supra-national government is beyond reproach, far from it, but if an NGO is going to lobby in that sphere they better be able to explain to their supporters why they’re right. The mantra of the environmental movement is think globally act locally, that’s a long way from today’s Greenpeace sadly.

    I used to count myself a supporter of Greenpeace, but after the financial squabbles earlier this year and now this I am reminded there are plenty of other environmental pressure groups out there worthy of support.

  17. First Officer says:

    This is what happens when NGO’s, Non-elected Governmental Organizations, such as Greenpeace, dictate to elected bodies.

  18. Lewis Deane says:

    Mark, I think you’re a bit conflicted: On the one hand, you love mankind and you think, with Blomberg, the faster they develop the better – but, on the other hand, you hate mankind and a la Ehrlich, you think the faster they die the better. It reminds me of an old Star Trek episode were they actually meet their Gods and reject them. What is important to you, most of all, is your ‘Politics’, however childish it began and still unformed, as it is. It is your identity. If you can understand, again, Blomberg, that ‘intellectual integrity’ is more important than its ‘contiguity’, a kind of childish joke, and the absurdity, in this context, of loyalty – in matters of intellect there are no ‘loyalties! -, then you can have that independence that might, I say, may, give you the respect you undoubtedly deserve. Sort yourself out.

    • Clyde Davies says:

      “What is important to you, most of all, is your ‘Politics’, however childish it began and still unformed, as it is. It is your identity. If you can understand, again, Blomberg, that ‘intellectual integrity’ is more important than its ‘contiguity’, a kind of childish joke, and the absurdity, in this context, of loyalty – in matters of intellect there are no ‘loyalties! -, then you can have that independence that might, I say, may, give you the respect you undoubtedly deserve. Sort yourself out. ”

      I tend to find that people who weave verbal tangles do so to hide the intellectual vacuum at the core of their argument. That, and sheer pomposity of course.

    • MB says:

      I suspect Lewis is probably a card-carrying Greenpeace member who has his teeth radiated every two years like clockwork, or is too young to appreciate life-saving diagnostic instruments like CAT or PET scans.

  19. Chuck says:

    “…and that instead the Commission will take its advice from a variety of independent, multi-disciplinary sources”

    Complementary and alternative science?

  20. Jos says:

    @mark lynas

    The letter and the twee seem contradictory. The original letter specifically refers to the Glover’s GMO statement as motivation for asking to ‘sack’ the EU CSA.

    “To the media, the current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety whereas this claim is contradicted by an international statement of scientists (currently 297 signatories)”

    So, this was about the GMO statement of the EU CSA. But in their tweet, Greenpeace claims that:

    “This is not about being for or against issues like GM food, …”

    If I read both carefully one might possibly argue that there is no disagreement between both. On the other hand, in the letter they don’t talk “about the integrity of all scientific processes within the Commission, and respect for evidence.” (see tweet). Hence, I have difficulties to disconnect this from the GMO discussion. Furthermore, if the CSA misrepresents the science (assuming that it is possible for the CSA to even represent it in a balanced way), I think it is the task of professional scientific organisations to address that, not NGO’s.

    It appears Greenpeace is twisting and turning to put themselves in a more favorable light.

  21. Clyde Davies says:

    This is what The Independent has to say about the matter at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/blind-to-science-anne-glovers-progm-views-are-not-a-sackable-offence-9862675.html :
    “Professor Glover was sacked from her position as Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Union yesterday by Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission (executive branch of the EU) because of her inconveniently erudite and evidence-based views on genetically modified crops. Professor Glover, in accordance with the majority of scientific opinion, believes that the ecological and health risks of GM crops are very low, whereas the benefits are potentially very big. Mr Juncker, in accordance with mass public hysteria and illiteracy on the subject of GM crops, wants to ban them from some countries, and needs to remove all obstacles to his doing so.”

  22. Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

    I recently attended a talk by Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, now one the activist body’s greatest critics. Moore, who has a PhD in ecological studies, said he was the only one in Greenpeace with a scientific background. He left when the body insisted on policies, such as banning GM Golden Rice, which were contrary to all scientific understanding.

    • Is the requested banning of Golden rice any more or less stupid than those pro-GM (some are supposed scientists) who are insisting upon the commercialisation of golden rice before it’s developers say that it is ready?

      According to the IRRI, Golden rice is not ready for commercialisation and it’s development has seen a yield setback of some time, so why all the hysteria from all sides? Nothing to do with the idiotic trashing of one test site in the Philippines but a range of problems in the application of the science.

      There are alternatives, for example, some Amish farmers are reinventing organic agriculture by studying the immune systems of plants, they’ve developed a technique that eliminates the need for synthetic chemicals. This is science in a real and meaningful sense, not a religion nor a scientific dogma.

      http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/the-amish-farmer-replacing-pesticides-with-nutrition/380825/

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