Thursday, 5 June 2014

Government science

EurActiv has run a remarkably candid interview with the EU's Chief Scientific Advisor, Anne Glover, which requires no further comment.

More than two years into her job, she seems to have learned a great deal about the internal working of the EU’s flagship institution. And her assessment of what goes on inside the Commission’s walls is not rosy.

... Describing her role at the Commission, Glover said she enjoyed considerable freedom in providing scientific advice to Barroso. Although her opinions remain confidential, she has made widely-publicised comments on subjects as diverse – and controversial – as climate change, GMOs or shale gas.

But it appears she also found it difficult to disentangle the Commission’s evidence gathering processes from what she calls the “political imperative” that’s behind them. Illustrating her point, she used a fictitious example:

“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 to his or her Director General, ‘Find me the evidence that demonstrates that this is the case.’”

The Commissioner’s staff might resist the idea but in the end, she says, “they will do exactly what they’re asked” and “find the evidence” to show that credit card use leads to personal debt, even though this may not be the case in reality.

“So you can see where this is going,” Glover said: “You’re building up an evidence base which is not really the best.”

To back its policy proposals, the Commission often outsources the evidence-gathering part of the job to external consulting firms, which provide ‘impact assessment studies’ or ‘research’ that are often branded as ‘independent’.

However, Glover says such consultancies have little incentive to produce evidence that contradicts the Commission’s political agenda.

“If they want repeat business, [they] are not going to go out and find the evidence to show that this is a crazy idea,” she says.

To be fair, the Commission is not alone in trying to distort facts, Glover said. The same goes for the other two EU institutions – the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers, which represents the 28 EU member states.

“What happens at the moment – whether it’s in Commission, Parliament or Council – is that time and time again, if people don’t like what’s being proposed, what they say is that there is something wrong with the evidence. So everybody blames the evidence and nobody is honest about the fact that in many cases, understanding the evidence is the best possible platform to make the logical extension into policy. But they don’t like it so they say ‘We need more evidence’. And of course scientists can always produce more evidence.”


Jonathan Bagley said...

"Remarkably candid" is a massive understatement. She's just said the EU is a joke.

Anonymous said...

Policy led evidence, pretty common here in Britain.

Anonymous said...

The article, although a better summary than most, fails to record the purpose of Professor Glover's speech, which was to suggest improvements to scientific evidence gathering processes in the Commission. The shortcomings apparent in the EU are, of course, reflected in individual member states. In the UK, for example, scores of badgers have been killed and renewable energy subsidies reduced in direct contravention of scientific evidence.