Anne, you were the first Chief Scientific Advisor in Scotland and in the European Commission (EC). What did these roles entail?
I looked at how we might best procure and develop evidence for policy. If José Manuel Barroso, the President of the EC at that time, had a particular issue such as an outbreak of Dengue Fever, he'd ask if this was something we needed to act on and what could be done. Additionally to the aspect of science for policy, we also looked at how we could develop policies for science.
Did being the first one to fill these positions mean you could also shape them?
Definitely. When the Scottish Government appointed me they did not really know what a Chief Scientific Advisor should or would or could do. Neither did I, to be fair, because I hadn't done it before. But that gave me quite substantial freedom to look at where I could have the most impact. Part of it was being a figure head. Somebody, who was identifiable, who was talking about evidence for policy and talking about the excellence of the research community in Scotland. I was exactly the same at the EC.
How did you report on new scientific findings or certain topics that were, let's call it “hot”, at that time?
I didn't really have a role in reporting it, except when I had routine catch-ups with my boss. There I would talk about something interesting that had just happened. I would also talk about ideas that people were discussing, or perhaps some controversy in science. But that was not a major part of my work. It tended to be a little bit more mundane. More like “Well, what are we going to do about this because there seems to be discussion or unhappiness about it at the European Parliament?” President Barroso might then say “Talk me through that” in terms of disagreements, what's happening there and so on. Is it cut and dried that the evidence says one thing or is there a lot of uncertainty? That was our routine interaction.
Where did you get the information that you passed on?
I relied heavily on The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC). The EASAC has representatives from all the individual academies. I could get in touch with them and ask about volcanic eruption – why are they only sometimes problematic for air-flight? I don't know anything about volcanology. Whom do I speak with?” They would then provide me with a report or people to talk to. Or I would get in touch with the EC Joint Research Centre which has in-house Commission scientists who work at different institutes with all the different specialisms within the EU. They are a fabulous resource because they are independent scientists although they work in the Commission.
People in jobs with similar tasks are sometimes criticized for letting their own objectives influence their advice. Did you ever worry about being an agenda-setter?
I would never have described myself as an agenda-setter. I'm thinking carefully because I am slightly taken aback by the idea that I could have been an agenda-setter. If there was an agenda that I wished to set it was that we must have evidence as a platform for policy-making. At the same time, scientists are not elected, politicians are. So, it was never – and in my view never should be – my task to tell politicians what they should do. Our task as science advisers is to provide evidence. I would even go a little further and say we could say “Here is the evidence and there are a number of options that might allow you to take account of that evidence in order to allow you to do what you want to do.” That's when the role of a Chief Scientific Advisor would finish. It would be quite worrying if a Chief Scientific Advisor started saying “You know what, I think you should be doing this”.
When you presented the information that you gathered to the policy-makers and the politicians, how did they react to the given information?
I could summarise by saying: If the advice was what they wanted to hear they reacted very well. If the advice was contrary to that, they didn't react at all well. Perhaps that's not surprising. Sometimes the evidence appeared inconvenient. Or people said “Well, it's not as simple as that” and that's true because often the evidence might tell you to do one thing – but for other reasons such as ethical, economic, social or philosophical ones you might do something else. The evidence might be uncomfortable in these situations but it's easily dealt with as long as politicians are transparent and say “We accept the evidence says this. But for these reasons we are going to do that.”
Did politicians ever react like that?
I have never seen it happening. But I think a time will come where this will happen. As a politician, I would be horrified to see my trust ratings so low. People mostly – not solemnly but mostly – go into politics to try make people's lives better. It must be awful to understand that you are not trusted. But there's got to be a reason when someone isn't trusted. Politicians – and I'm mostly thinking of the politicians in my country because that's where I have most experience – behave badly. They are rude and offensive to each other. They are not constructive in their argument and they are not transparent about what they do and why. If that carries on, I think we will all suffer really badly.
Were you ever concerned not to get the whole picture across, leading to policy-makers coming to a wrong decision?
Science is all about uncertainty. There are always different views. Part of my role was not just to gather evidence but also look at where the uncertainty was. Presenting evidence means identifying where there is consensus but there might be some critical voices that are quite powerful and credible and should be heard. You can always cherry-pick evidence to support a particular position. Just take drinking alcohol as an example: You can find evidence that alcohol increases your risk of developing cancer and you shouldn't drink any. But there is also a lot of evidence that demonstrates the positive effects of the occasional glass of wine. My task was to gather all of the evidence, analyse it and give it to the politician so that she or he can speak in an informed way and make sensible decisions.
Often politicians have to make decisions in a short amount of time where they may heavily rely on their gut feeling. How difficult is it to make evidence-based decisions?
A gut feeling is not a good adviser. It is heavily influenced by prejudice and confirmation bias. In many cases, politicians actually don't have to make major decisions overnight. There is time to gather evidence and weigh it up. A lot of political decisions are evidence-based. What, however, generally happens is that politicians of one political persuasion say they are going to do something different because it almost seems obligatory for politicians of another persuasion to condemn everything that is done by the others. You will always find evidence for your persuasion if you want to. But the evidence will be more solid in one area than another. That is not the fault of science. It's the way politics is done at the moment that needs reforming. Scientists tend to disagree with each other very well. Politicians don't appear to be able to disagree with each other at all. Sometimes it is really embarrassing to watch people debate at parliament. You'd hope for better in an elementary school.
During your time as Chief Scientific Advisor you were heavily criticised by NGOs for your position on GM-crops. Some people even insinuate this ended your time as Chief Scientific Advisor for the EC and led to the position being abolished altogether. Do you think there is some truth in that?
My position on GM crops certainly was not the reason. I always had a fixed term appointment. I also never at any point said we should or should not have GM in the EU. I just said that I agreed with the global academies that the technique is as safe as any other technique used to produce variety in crops, and I stand by that. Many of the NGOs that criticised me, I think, mixed up how GM-technology is used by large multinational seed companies and what the technology can do. They don't like the ethics of those businesses and they mix that up with whether GM crops are safe or not. Did it affect that the position didn't carry on? I honestly don't know. The current president of the EC now has an advisory team and it would be good for an analysis to be done in the future to determine if this is a better mechanism for the EC.
One last question: Earlier you mentioned that politicians are some of the least-trusted people. In some ways scientists seem to be losing some of the trust they have too. Is politics partially responsible for that?
I wouldn't blame politics for that. Actually, most scientists are maintaining their level of trust. Some groups of scientists are trusted less. If you are a government scientist, you are trusted less because you are perceived as influenced by your employer. There one might argue it's slightly the fault of politics. But scientists by and large deserve their trust. Scientists aren't perfect, they can be good people and they can be bad people like in any other profession. But we need to call out bad behaviour where we see it. We also need to work hard to increase the trust given to us, be more open, talk more about what we do and why, be honest about what we know and what we don't know. Exactly the same approach should be used by politicians: I would love to be proud of the politicians that represent me and, yet, so often I am disappointed. It doesn't have to be like that. If I had a magic wand, it would be that politicians could be more open, transparent and honest about what they do. Then they might win our trust and be empowered to do really transformational things for society. If we don't trust our politicians, their work is ineffectual.
Questions asked by Sonja Klein for AcademiaNet and Spektrum.de.(© Sonja Klein / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)