Scientists have an “absolute obligation” to translate their research to the public, said Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission president Manuel Barroso, in a Science Policy session at The EMBO Meeting 2013. The session was organized by the EMBO Science Policy Programme, and moderated by Michele Garfinkel, manager of the Programme.
There is still a lot to be done when it comes to the relationship between European scientists and the public. “Science is the most creative thing we can do with our lives; we shouldn't be sidelined, we should be out there telling people what we do,” said the Scottish microbiologist, who next to her job in politics still holds the chair of molecular biology at Aberdeen University. For almost two hours she answered questions both in the Science Policy session and at a press event about what needs to be improved in science communication, about the value of scientific evidence, ethical guidelines in research and implications of risk aversion for Europe.
Scientists and the public still speak different languages, yet there are some good examples of successful science communication, says Glover, and points to a comic from the European Commission that covers the topic of space in our everyday lives in an entertaining way. More than a million copies of All you need is space have been ordered by schools and other educational organizations across Europe.
Her role is to represent European scientists, yet given how small her team is, not much room for manoeuvre remains. “What I need is help from scientists to give people the evidence. I cannot do it on my own.” Her job is to gather scientific evidence from learned societies and organizations who produce independent reports or can recommend people to talk to. Some topics she has worked on include genetically modified organisms, climate change, and endocrine disrupting chemicals. One challenge she faces is to reach a consensus among the researchers that can be presented to politicians upon which they can base their policy decisions. An ounce of uncertainty in this evidence always remains – and this is where the two worlds clash. “Scientists love the uncertainty, politicians hate it.”
What is more, the world of politics is not exactly homogenous. A lot of mistrust reigns between the three major EU organs, the Council, the Parliament and the European Commission – and within them. “You would think the commission works together, but everyone tries to push their own agenda,” is Anne Glover's experience from the last two years in this position. Even when she manages to convince the President that some evidence is worth considering, the next step is drafting options that 28 member states are highly unlikely to agree on. “This is what makes the challenge of getting the evidence we use to have an impact on citizens even more difficult.”
She highlighted several of the issues facing European science and how the Commission plans to confront them. “We need to be more open and demanding about the ethical use of technology,” she emphasized, and suggested the development of regulated, publicly available ethics scores for biotechnology companies.
Anne Glover expressed her optimism for Horizon 2020, which includes three philosophies that she supports: scientific excellence, added value over member-state-specific programmes, and simplification to reduce bureaucratic procedures.
To continue her valuable work, Anne Glover closed by asking scientists to encourage the Commission to keep the position of Chief Scientific Adviser once her contract ends at the end of 2014.
by Yvonne Kaul & Raeka Ayiar