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Why is the role of Chief Scientific Officer becoming a political ‘hot potato’?

The Chief Scientific Adviser to the Commission President, first established in 2011, has in recent weeks become a major topic of debate between business leaders and environmental groups.

While organisations such as Greenpeace have called on the Commission to scrap the position – due in part to an alleged lack of transparency – others like BUSINESSEUROPE argue that the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) is about placing scientific evidence at the heart of governance, something that is vital in order to restore prosperity in the aftermath of the economic crisis. 'For policy-makers, scientific evidence provides ways of identifying potential harms and of developing effective ways to mitigate risks, such that the benefits of government intervention justify costs and unintended consequences are avoided,' said BUSINESSEUROPE in a letter dated 6 May 2014. 'Evidence-based decisions, derived from the best available science, build trust, enhance legitimacy, and reduce the risk of regulatory failure … we see the CSA as a key proponent in science-based decision-making to make the important role of science more visible in the EU-Institutions.' However, a number of non-profit groups have recently joined Greenpeace’s call to scrap the position. 'Scientific scrutiny in policymaking is essential,' said Jorgo Riss, the director of Greenpeace EU, in a press release. 'The question is how to ensure that the best representation of wide-ranging advice is available to you and your colleagues. The CSA position does not help and cannot fulfil this purpose because of the fundamental flaws of the role itself.' In a letter recently sent to the incoming Commission President, the NGOs argue that objective advice requires a range of sources, and that concentrating scientific influence in one person is counter-productive. 'Vested interests have long realised that the more you concentrate scientific advice into the hands of one person, the easier it is to control,' they write. 'Politicians value an apparently authoritative voice for garnering support for particular policies.' Many scientists however refute this point, arguing that professor Ann Glover, the current CSA, is advised by hundreds of European research organisations and the Joint Research Council, academies and learned societies from across the sciences and across the world. Indeed, the role of the CSA is to provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the Commission President, and to provide analysis and opinion on major policy proposals that touch upon issues of science, technology and innovation. In addition, the CSA aims to build relationships with high-level advisory groups such as the European Research Area Board, the scientific Committees of the Commission, the various EU agencies (European Medicine Agency and European Food Safety Authority, for example), and establish links with similar structures in the Member States. The role also calls for the CSA to communicate the scientific values on which specific Commission proposals are based, in order to enhance public confidence in science and technology and promote European knowhow abroad.For more information please visit: Chief Scientific Adviser homepage