The new EU chief scientist – in her first major interview

Published: 2/17/2012

Source: Public Service Europe

Freshly installed as the first ever European Union chief scientific adviser – Anne Glover speaks exclusively about her new role and the big issues she will focus on including GM, the common agricultural and fisheries policies as well as nanotechnology and the role of scientists in the 2008 economic crash

First of all, as this is a completely new post, could you set out just what role the chief scientific adviser will have in policy-making and what powers your office will hold – how loud will your voice be in Brussels and beyond?
“The scale of things is so different to what I’m used to so it is going to take some time to identify exactly how things work. I report directly to the European Commission president and I think that, in itself, gives me quite a loud voice. Taking policy to begin with – there are lots of directors and legislation and so on that are developed in Europe. I think it is important that evidence informs that system as much as possible. We have to ensure the evidence base is available for policy right at the outset, not a year after the policy has been developed. If you can identify what the evidence is, then you can also identify where there are gaps that mean you need more evidence in order to generate robust policy.”

So you will cherry-pick the areas that are relevant internationally at the time?
“Yes, there is a huge amount going on here so I will have to pick and choose the areas where I can make the most difference and have the greatest impact. There are only 24 hours in the day so I have to be realistic about what we can do. My aim is to have a culture here where people, when considering a policy issue, immediately think ‘well, what is the evidence’? Now, there will always be times when evidence is not used in policy-making or is ignored for reasons relating to economic, political, ethical or social reasons.

“In a way, I accept that because although I am a scientist and I work with evidence I know that politicians are elected and they represent people with other considerations. But I hope that where evidence is not used, then the reasons for that are transparent. That is a legitimate thing for me to ask. Let’s state that we are ignoring the evidence for these other reasons.”

But with regards to the Common Fisheries Policy, some would say the science has been completely ignored when it comes to setting fishing quotas – with national electoral priorities, expressed by ministers, triumphing over the greater good. How will you reverse this sort of head-in-the-sand thinking?
“There is a lot of evidence there and we continue to refine it. The CFP is a sensitive issue because in a lot of member states, it is people’s livelihoods. Sometimes fishing is a job that has run in their families for generations and I understand that. On the other hand, in order to protect the fish stock for future generations and our custodianship of the planet means it would not be good if we just saw the disappearance of species such as cod and so on. Nobody wins then. And, also, the implications of wiping species from the food chain in terms of diversity and how things interact is actually quite dangerous. We have to be mindful of that.

“It is an example where we need to keep persevering and talking about the evidence. We can look for hope now in the imagination of policy-makers to say ‘if we do this, it will mean that people lose their livelihoods and their will be fewer boats fishing – then what can we do instead to help those in the industry’. There could be a whole number of things including incentives and training to go into other sectors. We have to address overfishing and act on the evidence because otherwise the consequences will be rather grave. It is a human condition that we are concerned with the here and now, it is very difficult for us to look far into the future. Most of us struggle to scope what is coming in a year’s time, let alone five years or more.

“The same thing applies to climate change. But to be fair to ministers – of course, they have to think about the electoral cycle. Although if you ask people if they want healthy environments in the oceans and seas stocked with fish, most people will say yes. Whereas a fisherman might say ‘well, how do I feed my family – what do I now because I’m in my mid-40s and don’t quite know what else I could do’. We have to also think of the consequences of a reduction in fishing. I would challenge the politicians and the policy-makers to be thinking about all of these things.”

What role will you have in Horizon 2020 – the EU’s flagship research and innovation project – and what can be achieved if it is given the proposed €80bn budget from 2014 onwards?
“If I had a wish, what I would like to see Horizon 2020 develop is a real enthusiasm for innovation and using knowledge. Europe is actually very good at creating knowledge. If you look at the research impact, we are right at the forefront in a number of areas and we are improving. If you think, for example, where is the best science done – then people who are not looking at the data would probably say the United States. Well, no, it is Europe. Look at the absolutely ground-breaking work being done at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. It is a global envy point. What they are doing is magnificent and collaborative, with lots of EU member states and others working together. It brings together science, engineering and technology.

“At CERN, they are interested in the production of knowledge, education and creating inspiration. For me, it defines what it is to be human that we can do something like that. To recreate the tiniest fraction of a second after the big bang is amazing, something to be truly proud of. But as well as knowledge, education and inspiration – Europe is also providing business with food for thought, which leads to things like the creation of new medical scanners, the whole thing about the world wide web’s use of data and informatics – which has been revolutionised. It is about transferring the knowledge into a difference for our economy and way of life.

“So, for Horizon 2020, let that be our goal – collaboration for a healthy, sustainable future based on science, engineering and technology; where knowledge is generated and people use it. Where we need to spend most attention is getting people to use the knowledge. For some reason, our businesses in Europe – big or small – are strangely apathetic about innovation. For me, there is a form of madness there because it is like somebody saying ‘look, I’ve got the raw material to make your business really successful and it is not going to cost you anything because we’ve already paid for it – would you like it?’ and then the company turning around and saying ‘no, not really, we are doing fine the way we are’. Trying to crack that lack of engagement is important.

“It takes two to tango so the people that generate the knowledge have to be vigorous in talking about what they do and explaining it to those that might benefit from it. It does already happen in quite a profound way across member states, but we are not seeing the smart procurement of knowledge coming from our businesses. I don’t hear businesses saying these are the bottlenecks in our sector that we want to solve – how can you help us. At the moment, we have two sectors talking different languages. Until that changes, we can’t take advantage of what happens on our doorstep.”

Sure, CERN may be an example of where that is happening but there are not too many others in Europe. You yourself set up the biotechnology spin-off company Remedios. Do you think European academics do enough of this sort of commercial work in terms of bringing products to market? In the United States – there seems to be much more focus on spin-off companies, the involvement of venture capitalists and applied rather than basic research?
“There are actually lots of spin-out companies. Although, probably not to the level seen in the US. But there are other ways of getting your knowledge used. What is useful is to understand that scientists waxing lyrical to venture capitalists or potential clients can leave them unmoved. They are sometimes thinking ‘yes, but is it going to solve our problem or make us money’. It was a sharp lesson for me that you need to understand what motivates the people that you are talking to. You need to be flexible and I think that for a lot of academics, their skills are as teachers and generators of knowledge. It is probably unrealistic to say that the job description has to include being an entrepreneur as well.

“It is not going to work for all, but everyone should contact those that might be interested in the knowledge. The technology could be licensed into a company, for example, it need not be a spin-out. But in Europe, there is a stark contrast with the US when it comes to capital. In the US, if something is new then people want it because it is interesting – it doesn’t matter if it’s useful or better. In my experience, in the United Kingdom, people will let someone else use it first to see if it works and would be of use to them. There is a continual race to be second because nobody is very keen to take a risk.”

The lack of a single European patent system has not exactly helped in the past either. Companies have found that it is very expensive to license products across a number of different member states, in a number of different languages.
“Particularly for small companies that has been a real issue and even for universities. It has just been very expensive historically to protect technology across Europe. The movement towards a single European patent and a simplified process is very encouraging. It is part of the structure you need to build value in a company, to have that protection. But you also need an environment where people are interested in things that are new and embracing of new technology – including the concept of risk. If you look at the attitudes of EU citizens expressed in the Eurobarometers, it is actually quite concerning. There is a lot of conservatism about new technology and talk about precautionary principles. But, risk equals opportunity. Of course, you have to evaluate risk and manage it. We face risk every day. Walking to work is risky. You have to look at risk in the context of opportunity and reward.”

Sticking with that theme of risk, but in the context of financial matters, some critics say that one of the reasons the 2008 economic crisis came about was because too many trained scientists went to work in the city, rather than research institutions, and created these complex financial instruments that nobody really understood. As a scientist yourself, how do you respond to that sort of rhetoric?
“I would think it was astonishing if we were blaming scientists for the economic collapse in 2008. People always look for someone to blame. In fact, there is a dreadful blame culture that is spreading globally and I’m not at all keen on vilifying people. But, you raise an interesting point, a lot of physicists and informaticians moved into the city. Partly, because they were seduced by enormous salaries. And they did produce lots of programmes and algorithims, which probably unduly influenced people making investments.

“If we look back 50 years ago, if you wanted money for an investment you might have had to sit in front of a bank manager or investment manager – who would then have made a judgement. As an interested observer, what I think happened in 2008 was that too many investment decisions were made by running the figures through a programme. The removal of human judgment was probably to the detriment of the financial system. Some commentators were openly predicting the crash back in 2005, but because people were so absorbed by the financial system they chose to ignore it. Perhaps, governments could instead have thought more about regulation at that time. It is inappropriate to blame it on scientists; they were not the people in charge. But the introduction of those technologies did have a part to play as there weren’t used in the right way.”

You have talked previously about the need for science to work across disciplines to have a real impact in the 21st century. Could you give a practical example of where this has happened and how the world has benefited?
“Well, going back to same issue, around the time of the 2008 financial collapse there was an interesting article published – which likened financial systems to biological ecosystems. It highlighted what happens in an ecosystem if there’s an imbalance, how you could predict where things would go wrong. Not everybody agreed with that analysis, but I thought it was an interesting approach where biologists look for comparisons and offer insight to another system. I’ve mentioned CERN already – which has people who work in health sciences, people who work with imaging alongside engineers and physicists. And what about the way we are exploiting the energy in our oceans through wave and tidal power. Space science is another area where people are working across disciplines. It is the knowledge economy or knowledge triangle where you are getting everybody to work together. For Europe, that will be our future economy. We need diversity in terms of people working across disciplines.

“Another area that I believe is really important is gender diversity. Men and women are different. They often approach things in different ways, which is extremely valuable in team working. There are various stereotypes, but sometimes men can be visionary in their thinking and woman can often attend to the detail that makes that vision a reality. In terms of Europe’s human capital, the way we will be able to compete with emerging economies is having the strongest workforce as our platform. It means investing across the genders, men and women. We need to be more imaginative about what we do with parental leave. Some member states have done well. I’m impressed by Finland where the government gave new parents nine months off – three months for the man, three months for the woman and the other three months shared as they wish. There was a cultural change – the men who took the leave, when they returned to work, were more successful than colleagues who had not taken that time off. So there are skills that you learn looking after a new-born baby that are easily translated to the workforce. I don’t know what those skills are, but it would be interesting to find out more. You don’t see much gender equality in the emerging economies in Asia, which means it is an area where we could really compete in future.”

In terms of food security and safety – where do you stand on genetically modified products and what do you think of the EU’s rather dismissive stance to GM to date?
“In my own area of science, molecular biology, I have used the GM technology for most of my research career and very helpful it has been in generating understanding about how biological and environmental systems work. So I know the power of the technology and the regulations we adopt in order to use it are very sensible and appropriate. I can also see that healthcare and our understanding of diseases has been revolutionised. There has been an unparalleled acceleration of our knowledge generation through the use of GM, which is a fantastic thing.

“But people in Europe are anxious about the use of GM crops or animals and I have a concern about that because I don’t see the evidence base suggesting that there is substantial risk associated with it. Indeed, you could look at North America where they have been doing an experiment on our behalf for the last 15 years by growing and eating GM crops – and I don’t see over that period of time what negative impact it has had. There is a huge body of evidence, rightly so, looking at the risk of GM. People will ask me: ‘Is there no risk in eating GM crops?’ Well, of course, I would never say that as I am a scientist. What I would say is that whatever you eat for dinner this evening, there is a risk in eating that. There is risk associated with conventional agriculture, organic agriculture, any form of agriculture.

“Agriculture has a big impact on our environment. The act of fertilising fields reduces the microbial diversity in the soil, but we don’t think that it has any long-term effects. We think it is something we need to do. There are implications for climate change and water spoilage issues so we need to do that with care. So around GM, let us examine the evidence. It doesn’t support the restricted activity in this area that we see.
“People may say that it is just big business that is making money out of this, but I can’t help thinking that is the job of big business. It is a capitalist system we work in – energy companies make money, transport companies make money. So do agricultural companies. I wish there was a better debate around GM, based on evidence and not emotion. And I wish we could look at risk versus reward. Some farmers say that if we introduce these particular types of GM seeds, then we are tied in to using particular chemicals to manage our crops. They don’t like that because they feel it is a monopoly to a particular company and they are uncomfortable about that.”

But isn’t that part of the problem, these allegations that a small number of firms have a monopoly in the GM market?
“Possibly, the reason that has happened is because of all the restrictions on GM. If I was running a small seed company, it is not an area I would be getting into because I couldn’t afford to do it. The lobbyists and pressure groups have almost been responsible for it by causing this withdrawal from evidence and this acceptance of the emotional argument. It really is not fair to use terms such as ‘Frankenstein foods’. We should be a bit more cautious in Europe here. By turning our backs on the evidence, there is a question over whether we are still going to be as competitive. We need to seriously look at GM crops when we tackle to the global problem of climate change and being able to feed the population of the world. It links into food security as well and we do need to think about that.”

And most people are not aware of the fact that GM is already in the food chain in Europe anyway, through animal feed. But politicians and institutions do seem to be running scared on this debate. If there is a space for a GM champion in the EU – is that something you want to pursue in your new role?
“I’m always happy to talk about the evidence. I do know that politicians find themselves in a difficult position; they want to represent the electorate. If you ask people on the street, they would be against GM. But if you ask them what the risks are, there is this awful silence. Very little of the food we eat is natural. Is a hamburger in a fast-food restaurant natural? I don’t think so. Ready meals and processed foods, they are not natural. We somehow accept that, but in this one area citizens are wrong-footed because they have this subliminal and strong message that it is not natural and is unsafe. Well, that is not what the evidence says. A debate is no good if it is entrenched people thumping the table, it needs to be based on evidence. In Europe, we have to be transparent about why we are parking this evidence.”

Looking to another major issue – Europe was once hailed as the global leader when it came to tackling climate change and holding the Kyoto protocol together in spite of the US. That seems to have faded now as higher emissions reductions targets have yet to be agreed and all of the focus seems to be on what the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – will do, rather than Europe being able to pull along the laggards. What would your advice be to the commission to turn this around? 
“Europe needs to continue to be a leader in this area. It is something we can be genuinely proud of. But if we pull back from our targets now, then how can we expect the BRICS and the US to invigorate their attention in this area. The climate change evidence is convincing and the impact of doing nothing is catastrophic for the human species. The planet and microbes will be fine; there will still be life, but the earth won’t be suitable for a human population. The billions of people that we see now will disappear. Of course, it won’t be overnight but over a prolonged period of conflict and misery. It is a moment of reckoning for the human species. We have the wherewithal to do something about it; we need the political and social will from citizens and for politicians to be imaginative in policy-making to deliver it. We have got 500 million people in Europe, we can’t walk away from this. So we must lead and we must be uncompromising in what we do.

“I hear the arguments about there being a financial crisis so we should relax over this, but there is a huge opportunity in the green economy. It could be a source of recovery – if we focus innovative thinking and new technology and use Horizon 2020 to get social sciences engaged with the natural sciences in order to be more imaginative and marry up legislation with business opportunities. Most people don’t want to believe climate change is happening in the same way as when you smoke a cigarette, you don’t want to believe it is giving you lung cancer and reducing your lifespan. It is not a message you want to hear, that your lifestyle will have to change.

“We have to start thinking about things like cycling to work and clothing. In the developed world, we all have an awful lot of clothes. It takes a lot of time to maintain them. If we had advanced nanomaterials, you could wear a shirt – give it a couple of brisk shakes at the end of the day and all of a sudden any odour or dirt disappears with no need for washing or ironing, with all the energy and water that takes. We have reached peak when it comes to a lot of natural resources – whether it is oil or water. We are wedded to computers and mobile phones, but a lot of these devices require rarer earth metals, minerals and so on that we are running out of. So we need to be aware of that. If we want out position on the planet to be sustainable, interesting and exciting – then we need to wake up to the fact that we are using too many resources and think of some alternatives. Europe is a natural leader in all of these things because of our history and our size. We can invent an exciting future for ourselves, if we adopt the leadership role.”

With that in mind – what other big technological innovations do you see coming down the line when it comes to things like nanotechnology, neuroscience, stem cell medicine, artificial intelligence and so on – just how will these things change the way we live our lives in the future? 
“In terms of applications – you might be somebody who has a poor diet and goes to the doctor, who then asks you to swallow a tiny pill that is full of nanobots that circulate through your body checking the health of your artery walls. They might check for fat deposits, they might look for ulcers in the stomach and all of the time be reporting back to the doctor at the surgery. If they can predict trouble around the corner for people, it might spur patients to do something about it. You are getting real information; that is an example of nanotechnology preventing a health disaster for the individual and preventing costs for the health service. We can cut the cost of healthcare and improve the quality of life at the same time. As the name suggests, you use very little of something to have a real impact.

“Nanotechnology is natural, look at self-cleaning glass. How wonderful to have a window that is clean and sparkling no matter what. The principle of it is the same as you get on large water lilies. Our bodies are already full of nanotechnology, there are little machines in each of us that make new proteins and are the building blocks of our body. We are taking inspiration from nature and seeing how we can use these things to miniaturise and perform new functions. It is rather an attractive future.”

So if there is a need to educate people about this new world and to dispel the myths when it comes to things like GM and nanotechnology – will you be striving to fill that role in your ambassadorial work for the commission? 
“I want to champion the best of European science globally and I have a valuable platform from which to do that. The reason that you are talking to me now and not six years ago when I was a humble research scientist in Scotland is because you think that I will be able to influence people and change attitudes. In fact, I hope the media will give me a voice to showcase what we do. For Europe to be successful in the 21st century and beyond – the economy has to be based on science, engineering and technology.

“The young people of today will deliver that future so they need to be convinced of the value of pursuing a career in science. Scientists need to speak out a bit more about their lives. People have an idea of what a lawyer does, but they are not sure what a scientist does. I might know one or two mad professors with the white hair and the lab coat, but I don’t know many. Scientists actually have an incredibly interesting life. Every day is different, there is a good career structure, you are relatively well-paid, you have the ability to work anywhere in the world because you are an expert in what you do. In short, you are never bored. What better way to spend your life? Honestly, it doesn’t seem like a job and you get to make a difference; the knowledge you generate can change the world. It is there for the taking.”

Changing the subject again, what reforms would you like to see to the Common Agricultural Policy?
“I have met with the Directorate General of Agriculture and where we saw common interest was the introduction of innovation in agriculture. I would like to pursue that. Whether you are a tiny crofting farmer or a large multinational farmer with monoculture on your crops, you can look at how to do things differently. It’s a challenge in traditional activities like agriculture – something we have always had and will always need to make sure we are fed. It links into the food security issue.

“Given what the challenges are for the 21st century – climate change, reducing emissions, and food security – and commercial considerations, how can we change agriculture to support the industry and support sustainability? That is where I will focus my attention. It’s the same as the Common Fisheries Policy in a way and other policy areas that have large funding from the commission; we need to be mindful of how we measure success in these areas where we are investing a lot of money. It will not just be – have we spent all of the money? We need some imaginative measures of success that people can work towards so that we are driving change and innovation, while engaging with industry. People involved in agriculture also need to protect the environment and be careful about how land is used as well as producing food and products for us.”

In essence – you are talking about ensuring that you collect the right data, carry out the right analysis of that data and from the conclusions reached you develop effective solutions for the future?
“Yes, that’s it in a nutshell. There is a real opportunity with reforms to CAP so let’s see lots of people working together on this – those working in agriculture, scientists, engineers, technologist and policy-makers. It has to be a shared burden. Where we are providing subsidies to farmers and agricultural programmes, we need to have a concrete idea of what it will look like if it is successful so that we don’t repeat mistakes. We need to spend funding wisely.”

Finally, are there any points you want to get across that we have not covered? 
“Well, I just want to reiterate that an area that I am interested in and that we must champion is gender equality as I’ve already mentioned. And it is not just because I am a woman. I know many men who talk as vociferously about this as I do. But one other thing I do want to improve upon through my new role is better collaboration in Europe. Science is all about collaboration and can be used as a model, with things like CERN, for member states working together – even though in the first instance it is not obvious how a member state is going to immediately benefit from it. I want science, engineering and technology to help make Europe a great place to live in – a beacon of achievement, if you like. There is the goal for us all. A successful Europe means success for every member state in a very positive way.”

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