Professor Anne Glover joined the European Commission as Chief Scientific Adviser to the President in January 2012, and is the first person to hold this position.
In this role she advises the President on any aspect of science and technology, liaises with other science advisory bodies of the Commission, the Member States and beyond, coordinates science and technology foresight, and promotes the European culture of science to a wide audience, conveying the excitement and relevance of science to non-scientists. She also chairs the recently established Science & Technology Advisory Council of the President.
Prior to her current appointment she was Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland from 2006-2011. Professor Glover currently holds a Personal Chair of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Aberdeen. Most of her academic career has been spent at the University of Aberdeen where she has a research group pursuing a variety of areas from microbial diversity to the development and application of whole cell biosensors (biological sensors) for environmental monitoring and investigating how organisms respond to stress at a cellular level.
Professor Glover holds several honorary doctoral degrees and is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Society of Biology, the Royal Society of Arts and the American Academy of Microbiology. Professor Glover was recognised in March 2008 as a Woman of Outstanding Achievement in the UK and was awarded a CBE for services to Environmental Science in the Queen’s New Years Honours list 2009.
When Professor Anne Glover finished her five-year term as Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland, the biologist was lauded for not only raising the visibility of science in Scotland and the UK, but for further increasing the role of scientific evidence in the policy-making process.
These fruitful five years led her to the challenging and geographically diverse role of Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission (EC), which she leaves after three years in the position, at the end of 2014. As the first ever scientist to be tasked with the responsibility of independently advising politicians and policy-makers governing more than 500m people across 28 member states, this was no easy assignment.
As adviser to EC President José Manuel Barroso, one of her biggest priorities has been to increase debate on evidence-based policy. “There was a key challenge from the start to increase people’s appetite in looking at how evidence is used and discussing how it can potentially provide more imaginative options when it comes to creating policy”, says Glover. “I think scientists have become much more interested in the idea that the knowledge they generate through their research can be meaningful and have a wide impact on EU citizen’s lives in terms of developing better policy. There is now a general willingness to engage.”
One of her biggest challenges, she says, was not only to demand that politicians listen to the scientific evidence, but also that they are transparent about why they sometimes ignore it. “This is such an important issue for me and it is inevitable that policy makers will take into account more than just the evidence, such as philosophy ethics or economic factors,” notes Glover.
“However, where there’s a strong evidence base and it is simply ignored because it is inconvenient, politicians need to be more honest and open about why they are disregarding the information put in front of them. Scientists should never tell them what to do, but have a role to make sure that the best evidence is there and that there’s some kind of honesty around people’s use of it. It is an area that needs a lot of attention.”
Interconnectedness in science and policy
With European science faced with tackling a host of global challenges including climate change, water security, health and an ageing population, Professor Glover believes there is a much needed emphasis on multi-disciplinary working across both policy and science. “We need to look at the overarching key challenges we are facing, such as climate change, and then test every new policy we come up with against those overall objectives. I think in doing that, it inevitably gets people talking across different governmental departments, as it’s hard to develop policies in one area that do not then impact on other areas,” exclaims Glover.
Professor Glover advocates for this “interconnectedness” in government and has seen this model evolve in her own scientific profession as a microbiologist. During her seconded tenure to the Scottish government between 2006 and 2011, she continued her active research group at the University of Aberdeen, where she is Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology. The Arbroath-born adviser would spend one day a week perusing her own research on microbial diversity. Her research also focused on the development and application of whole cell biosensors for environmental monitoring and investigating how organisms respond to stress at a cellular level.
“The policy world very much mirrors what we do in science today. When I first started doing research in my field around 35 years ago, I really just needed to speak to other biologists”, said Glover. “Yet now I can’t do my science without speaking to material scientists or chemists outside my field. That’s why I think the more we increase that interconnectedness at a policy level, the better chance we have of creating really effective policies.”
Through Glover’s roles in teaching and speaking across the globe at science festivals and to lay audiences, she has always strived to convey the excitement and relevance of science to non-scientists. Communication is important to Glover, and she believes it’s not only the details of what scientists communicate that matters, it’s how they communicate them. She believes it’s not only scientists who wrestle with language barriers:
“Any specialist tends to be hampered a little in their own professional language and scientists may have a reputation of not communicating well because we talk in a technical way, but the same could be said about policy-makers, economists or social scientists”, observes Glover. “Sometimes we beat ourselves up a little too much for not being able to communicate, but I think if we have it in the back of our minds and know the audience we are communicating to, it is a massive advantage. It’s actually really motivating for scientists to set ourselves a challenge of making what we discover incredibly interesting.”
The European Commission may put science and engineering at the core of European culture, but Glover does admit concern around the sophisticated technical developments in science that are making it a harder subject for EU citizens to connect with. “Ordinary Europeans may see the results in new technologies and different treatments when they receive healthcare or see new products in the shops, but they often don’t know how they were arrived at, says Glover. “I don’t think we talk about it enough, and for me I’d start early in education highlighting to young people how science has always been part of our culture. Europe invented the modern world and we can also invent the future. It is up to us to continue developing science and pushing the frontiers of knowledge.”
Glover cites CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, and other globally unique research infrastructures in Europe as glowing examples of ingenuity and European pride. The microbiologist singles out CERN for its approach to what she calls “the triangle” of outstanding research, education and communication – translating science to both young and old.
“The Large Hadron Collider makes me inordinately proud to be a human. That we’ve been able to do something on that scale and collaborate across nations globally is mind-blowing. To think that through getting the best minds together from science, technology and engineering to address a common goal, we have been able to recreate a fraction of a second after the big bang and see what particles were around at that time.”
European Scientific Culture
Engaging European citizens and helping nurture and support a European scientific culture is by no means going to be an easy task in the future. Statistics from last year’s Eurobarometer, a series of public opinion surveys conducted on behalf of the European Commission, show public support for science and technology is dwindling. The survey showed how 77% of EU citizens agree that science and technology have a positive impact on society; but there is a concern about their potential for negative consequences, and the speed of change they can cause on citizens’ lives.
The findings also show that at least half of all Europeans are interested in developments in science and technology (53%), although only 40% say they feel informed about them. Glover agrees this is something that needs to be redressed. “We need to perhaps rebalance our focus on what attention we pay to our research, education and communication, as education and communication are often afterthoughts, if they’re thought of at all. We should perhaps reward people if they do well at these skills and only then might we start allowing Europeans to fully embrace this culture of science”, says Glover.
“If we move in the opposite direction and create a culture of anti-science I would fear for what our future would look like in Europe. Our natural resource in Europe is our human ingenuity and that’s it, as we don’t have say huge deposits of copper. Human beings are our biggest resource. We have a proven track record in being imaginative, innovative and generating new knowledge. And I think that will also be the way in which we deliver a really good future for citizens of Europe, but not if they feel alienated. It is down to not just scientists but also educators, businesses and for civil society to be more demanding about science.”
In December 2013, the European Commission launched the first stage of its €80 billion ‘Horizon 2020’ research and innovation programme. This has come at a time when EU science and enterprise is in need of a much desired shot in the arm, as many researchers struggle under the weight of economic woes. It has created an upbeat mood among some of the organisations that fund and carry out research, including Science Europe, a Brussels-based organisation for national funding bodies and researchers.
Glover notes it is “a really important landmark” for European science and hopes people use the funding in “exciting and imaginative ways.” “Horizon 2020 allows us to fund the science that could not otherwise be funded by member states. It will focus on the big challenges and get the best minds thinking how they can contribute to it”, says a buoyed Glover. It will also be the first time successful applicants for funding will be asked about how they will communicate their research. “We are also trying to link up with businesses for them to have more involvement – as business is one mechanism to translate the knowledge into real impact for citizens. It is an exciting time for everyone involved in science and I hope it’s successful and we see the benefits.”
Yet despite this funding boost, there still needs to be work done on informing citizens about developments in science and technology. Eurobarometer results show only 40% of the EU feels informed, while there is further need to support both formal and informal science education, especially in southern and eastern EU member states. “These surveys show there is an appetite to learn, but many feel they’re not particularly well informed”, says Glover. “Citizen Science is a great way partly to understand what the scientific method is when you get a piece of evidence, whether you can trust it, how it has been obtained – and it allows people to contribute and be part of the process.”
The European Environment Agency’s citizen science project which has enabled biodiversity monitoring across Europe, is an example of how citizen science can be a resource for policy advice. Glover cites the radiation hotspots of Fukushima as a prime example of how science can involve the public in the collection of data. “The information was crowd-sourced from citizens concerned about radiation who took measurements and sent them in on their mobile phones”, comments Glover. “It would have been very difficult for the government to have covered such a vast area in the time citizens could send in rich information on hotspots. We have the technology to do this now, so why wouldn’t we want everyone to share in the fun and excitement of getting involved in science.”
Glover believes citizens could feel real ownership and involvement if they were to play some role in the research projects funded by the European Commission. Recent examples include The Human Brain Project, which plans to use a supercomputer to recreate everything known about the human brain, and Graphene which will develop the potential of grapheme — an ultrathin, flexible and conducting form of carbon —for applications in computing, batteries and sensors.
“All six shortlisted projects were scientifically excellent and peer-reviewed and I feel we could have considered getting citizens involved in the final selection. Project leaders could in future give 30 second pitches on why their project is worth funding and let the public decide which two finalists get funded. Then citizens would feel ownership and involvement and want to know what’s happening, rather than things happening separate from the public. It sometimes feels like research is being done to them, rather than for them.”
This idea is further evidenced in the Eurobarometer, with 55% of Europeans believing public dialogue is required when it comes to decisions made about science and technology. This is consistent with previous EC surveys, which indicate that public dialogue is especially desired when social values are at stake. One of the most shocking statistics in the survey, is even though there is broad support for science education, the majority of Europeans (65%) think that the government is doing far too little to stimulate young people’s interest in science. However, there is an emphasis for change, as 59% agree an interest in science improves young people’s job prospects and 68% believe it improves their ability to act as well-informed citizens.
“I’ve often said everyone is born a scientist it’s just that a lot of us get it knocked out of us by teaching methods or other factors,” Glover is quick to note. “Young people under the age of 10 have the curiosity most scientists do – and it is important to keep that keep that enthusiasm as they discover new things. If we are to be successful in Europe, we need our brightest young people to at least consider a career in science, engineering and technology. We’ve got a bit of a way to go yet, but with lots of wonderful science centres and museums across Europe – we can continue to encourage fun with learning.”
Part of this, Glover believes, is down to an image problem science has with young people. She agrees that not many pupils know what a scientist does in their chosen discipline. “I have asked many youngsters about what scientists do and most can describe them, but have no idea what their work involves. Often the description is not very nice either. It is usually a bearded man in a white coat with big thick glasses that doesn’t get out often. Why would they ever want to be that person, nearly always a man, never a woman – and the more we can demystify the community of science, the more possibilities we have for people to get involved.”
It is the latter point on women role models for young people and the infrastructure in the scientific workforce that Glover admits needs considerable progress. Glover herself has been recognised as a Women of Outstanding Achievement in March 2008 by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, and was awarded a CBE for her services to Environmental Science in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list 2009. Public opinion also shows that more than eight out of ten (86%) respondents to the Eurobarometer think it is important that scientific research takes equal account of the needs of men and women.
‘She Figures 2012’, the fourth publication providing data on the participation of women at all levels in science and research was released by the European Commission in April 2013. It showed that women represent only 33% of European researchers, with only 15.5% heads of institutions in the Higher Education sector.
“We are attracting more and more young women into science who start off at undergraduate level at universities and progress to PHD/ postdoc before we start losing them when they’re thinking of having families”, notes Glover stridently. She believes that the industry is very traditional in its views on maternity and paternity and needs “to be more enlightened” in its thinking. “We cannot afford to attract talented women who we invest in and train, to then carelessly lose them from the workforce simply because we are not able to bring them back when it suits. Not only this, but we need to be far more considerate about how we look at working environments, so they are suitable and attractive for both men and women – making a happier more productive workforce that brings better organisational efficiency and higher profitability.”
Glover says science needs to be more imaginative in relation to positive intervention on boards, in decision making bodies and conference line-ups. “People are lazy and it is sometimes much easier to think of 12 really good men for something and harder to think of six good men and women. However I’m tired of waiting for things to creep along and seeing one or two percent increases of women at a senior level – it is not changing fast enough and businesses need to act on this.”
After three years, Glover will return to the University of Aberdeen and continue in her research activities. She leaves, what she hopes, is a positive legacy for future chief scientific advisers coming into the role at the EC. The microbiologist has also been working tirelessly to persuade more EU member states to appoint national scientific advisers, with the intent of establishing an EU-wide network. There are currently only three formal positions in Ireland, Czech Republic and the UK. “We now have about 11 member states who have actively nominated someone and I hope the remaining 17 will investigate further into highlighting the importance of independent scientific advice for decision-making,” says Glover.
With the first ever world summit on scientific advice coming up in Auckland in August, there is no better time to highlight the challenges ahead. It will provide a platform for important debates on scientific advisory systems worldwide. “It will be a great opportunity to discuss how evidence is developed for policy at the highest level,” adds Glover. She also admits it will be a good time for the EC to re-evaluate some of its procedures. “The Commission has a lot of good procedures, I’m just not sure how sufficiently joined up they are. It is important that the EC uses all its resources to maximum strength in future years and has an effective quality control on the evidence being gathered for any particular policy development.”