In What Shouldn’t Be A Surprise, European CSA Will Soon Stand Down

Professor Anne Glover is the first Chief Scientific Adviser for the European Commission (it was not her first time as a first CSA, as she broke ground in the same position in Scotland).  Glover was appointed to the position back in 2011 by then-President Barroso.  With a new Commission President in place, it was an open question whether or not current President Juncker would retain the same Commission advisory structures as his predecessor.  We now have an answer

James Wilsdon reports at The Guardian that the CSA position will not continue.  In a message Professor Glover sent to European science bodies, she noted that her support organisation, the Board of European Policy Advisers, was ending.  As that entity goes, so went the CSA position.

As can happen in the science (and science policy) press, some reports on this decision framed it in terms of pro- and anti- science (in general or about specific fields).  I think there’s too little information, and too many other possible explanations, for the decision to be so clearly caused by a particular action that Glover took (or position that Juncker holds).  Yes, there were cases during Professor Glover’s tenure (which Wilsdon covers in his Guardian piece) where her positions conflicted with powerful lobbies.  Yes, there were arguments that a single scientific adviser was not the best way for Europe to handle scientific advice.  But right now, it’s hard to see anything more than a temporal correlation between these events.

It took President Barroso over two years to get from a speech promising to appoint a Chief Scientific Adviser to announcing Professor Glover’s appointment.  Juncker has been far less committal to institutionalised science advice in the Commission.  He is in the midst of a serious re-shuffling of Commission responsibilities and agencies.  I would not be surprised to see the existence and placement of a science adviser to fall far down his list of priorities.  A lowered interest should not be presumed to come from antipathy.

But let’s not pretend that we didn’t (or couldn’t) see this coming.  As it happens, James Wilsdon wrote at *Research last year on how Professor Glover could help ensure the continuation of the CSA position past the Barroso Commission.  It would seem that Glover followed some of the advice with the formation of the Science and Technology Advisory Council, and the formation of a pan-European council of national science advisers.  The second group is scheduled to meet in Copenhagen next month.

Fundamentally, we are dealing with a position that is not encased in law, but in the whims of the chief executive.  Lacking a history of institutional science advice, much less a science adviser, I can understand how the Commission might not stick with a CSA.  If the scientific community is committed to having a European CSA, it might be worth the time and trouble to see if there are ways to (re)establish the position without relying on the good graces of whomever is President of the Commission.  That may not always be satisfying or permanent (heck, a U.S. president got rid of the science adviser for a while), but it could help embed some form of executive science advice into the institutions of European government.

Addendum – the U.S. faces a similar dilemma in 2017.  President Obama promised to create the position of Chief Technology Officer during his campaign, and appointed one in 2009.  Megan Smith is the current occupant, the third to hold the position.  But this is a presidential appointment, and not one established in law.  There is nothing requiring his successor – whomever it may be – to appoint one.  (This is also true for the science adviser, but that position is by tradition also appointed the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, a position established in law.)  If the people who find value in having a Chief Technology Officer want it to continue, they would do well to start pestering presidential candidates now.

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