08 March 2013

No Superpowers for the EU Science Adviser

Writing in Science today, Kai Kupferschmidt has an excellent profile of Anne Glover, Europe's chief scientific advisor. The profile follows the typical arc of such discussions -- a longing for power, success in institutionalization, followed by disappointment in the realpolitik of the position. At the top of this post you can see Glover giving a keynote talk last month at the STEPS science policy conference in Sussex, UK.

An anecdote related by Kupferschmidt tells the tale:
[In] a magazine interview in July, Glover argued that eating genetically modified food was no riskier than eating conventionally farmed food—a stance at odds with the beliefs of many Europeans.

She says she wanted to give evidence a voice. “By all means, people can say, for ethical reasons, for philosophical reasons, for economical reasons, for political reasons, I am not keen on that,” she says. “But you cannot 1say it is dangerous, when it isn’t.”

The interview sparked a debate in the European Parliament and an official request by one of its members asking whether the commission agreed with Glover’s stance. The reply was telling. The chief science adviser, the commission wrote in its answer, “has a purely advisory function and no role in defining Commission policies. Therefore, her views do not necessarily represent the views of the Commission.”
Here is what José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission and to whom Glover reports, had to say in full (here as a DOC) about the controversy, from which Kupferschmidt quotes from:
The Commission wishes to use the opportunity to clarify to the Honourable Member the role of the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA). The CSA reports directly to the President of the Commission and has the task to provide independent expert advice to the President on any aspect of science, technology and innovation and the potential opportunities and threats to the EU stemming from new scientific and technological developments. Likewise, the CSA has a role in enhancing public confidence in science and technology and to promote the European culture of science. In this context, the CSA has a role in stimulating societal debate on new technologies and to communicate the existing scientific evidence about such technologies. The CSA has a purely advisory function and no role in defining Commission policies. Therefore, her views do not necessarily represent the views of the Commission.
The science adviser has a role much like one would expect in the real world of politics. However, the image of the science adviser held by many, including some scientists, remains tied to the mythology of the position based on unrealistic expectations of truth speaking to power.

That mythology shows up in Kupferschmidt's profile as well.
Contrast Glover’s access with that of John Holdren, the latest in a long list of éminence grises tapped to advise U.S. presidents. At the annual meeting of AAAS (Science’s publisher) in Boston last month, Glover says that Holdren told her that he was in and out of Barack Obama’s office up to four times a day in the run-up to important decisions.
Four times a day!? Based on John Holdren's recent talk in Boulder in which he described his role in the Obama Administration, and the history of the position (here in PDF), this claim would seem to be best viewed as a bit of science-adviser-to-science-adviser braggadocio. The science adviser in the US system sits outside the circle of close presidential advisers, not least because the position is congressionally mandated and thus not subject to executive privilege. When important decisions are being made the science adviser is asked to leave the room. No science adviser that we interviewed (going back to JFK) met with the president up to 4 times per day - once a month might be more realistic.

Rather than taking from this a sense of access-envy, Glover should take some confort in knowing that her role as science adviser is actually not so different from that experienced by advisers in the US:
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, the driving force behind the creation of her position, hasn’t bestowed superpowers on Glover, however. On the contrary, after years of discussions in Brussels, the science adviser’s office became a “casualty” of austerity measures, Glover says. She has no budget of her own and just five staff members—one-half of the size of her team in Scotland.
While there is a big difference between having superpowers and serving as a mid-tier bureaucrat, the key to the success of the science adviser role is to recognize the realities of the position and take full advantage of what is nonetheless a unique role in government.