Wednesday, 19 March 2014 14:53

Europe's Science Chief seeks to eliminate scientific discourse

By
Anne Glover, EU Chief Scientific Adviser Anne Glover, EU Chief Scientific Adviser Image: Wikimedia Commons, Friends of Europe

Anne Glover, the EU's chief scientist, is playing politics with science warns Brian John of GM-Free Cymru. Her role in promoting GMOs as safe and attempting to get rid of the precautionary principle, he argues in this guest post, is all part of a carefully crafted attempt to redesign science and to impose a scientific orthodoxy worked out with the "learned" academies. Dismissing some GMO discoveries by claiming they are "contested" ignores how scientific debate really works.

Since taking office in 2012, EU Science Chief Anne Glover seems to have taken it upon herself to redefine the meaning of the term "scientific evidence" and to shake up the manner in which scientists work and communicate with each other.

In two staged "interviews" published in Euractiv 1 it has become apparent that she sees her role as providing science in support of the predetermined political positions of her boss, EC President Barroso. She will deny this, of course, but if we look at one field - the contentious area of GMOs - we see immediately that she is intent upon the "scientific validation" of the line pushed relentlessly by the Commission - ie that GMOs are safe and that they should be allowed without any great hindrance into the food supply, even if there is no public taste for them and no demand from retailers.  This pressure towards market liberalisation and the insidious dismantling of GMO regulations is now being increased by the US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiators.

Politics will always be a dirty business.  But there is something far more worrying going on here, and it has to do with science itself.  If you look at the carefully crafted statements from Anne Glover, a number of things become apparent:

1.  She is seeking to re-define the term "scientific evidence" by claiming that there is no substantiated evidence of harm associated with GMO crops and foods.  Leaving aside the matter of what is substantiated, and what is not, and who does the substantiating, Glover is perpetrating a falsehood here.  She has repeated it over and again.2  As she knows full well, there is a large body of peer-reviewed literature which shows harmful direct and indirect effects arising from the growing of GMO crops.  She seems to be suggesting that the evidence cited by hundreds of scientists, in these publications, is not "evidence" at all, simply because she does not agree with it or finds it inconvenient.  If nothing else, this shows a deep disrespect for working scientists and a lack of awareness of how science works through a process of data collection in the field and in the laboratory, and by hypothesis-testing in a climate of mutual respect.3

2.  She is arguing that the Precautionary Principle is no longer needed in the assessment of GMO crops and foods, since in her view the arguments about safety are over.   This is both arrogant and dangerous, putting at risk the health of Europeans on the basis of a deeply flawed premise.  This undermines one of the key underpinnings of EU law and Codex Alimentarius in the matter of GMOs - namely that they are different from conventional organisms and are liable therefore to be uniquely unpredictable and potentially dangerous for health and the environment. Many would agree that the "presumption of high risk" has now been amply confirmed through scientific investigation.4

 3.  She is also arguing that GMOs in Europe have been "regulated to death" - with the implication that these regulations are now holding back progress and need to be changed or even dismantled.  That again is a dangerous attitude, in which she seems (on the basis of her own convictions about GMO safety) to be seeking to undermine the regulations which protect the people of the EU. Her role is to advise Mr Barroso, not to seek to change the EU regulations in tune with her personal views.

 4.  She refers to learned "independent" bodies like the European Academies of Science Advisory Council (EASAC) in support of her position on GMOs, presumably on the assumption that such academies are uniquely qualified to tell the rest of us what to believe and what to do.   The report to which she frequently refers, called "Planting the Future", does not even have any cited authors - and it is essentially a position statement distributed by a relatively small scientific community whose members are seeking to protect their own status and to guarantee a flow of research funds into their own pet projects.5  Is that too cynical a view?  Having watched the Royal Society's take on GMOs over the years, it seems reasonable.  It is of course a standard tactic for somebody in Glover's position to "defer" to some distant reputable body and to quote it verbatim, giving her words a gloss of respectability and deflecting responsibility in the event that their assurances about safety turn out, in due course, to be false.

 5.  She repeats the EASAC line that controversies about the negative impacts of GMO crops and foods are based upon "contested science".1 This is disingenuous and even dishonest, especially when she implies that papers purporting to show that GMOs are safe are somehow "uncontested".  That is of course nonsense - all the science in the GMO debate is contested in the literature and in public discourse, and so it should be.

6.  Finally - and this is the most serious issue of all - Glover seems intent upon establishing a scientific orthodoxy with respect to GMOs, determined by an unelected and biased small group of scientists (including herself) who have decided that the GMO safety debate is over, and that GMOs are harmless.  She does not recognise the integrity of the scientists who argue otherwise, and indeed she denies that their published conclusions are based upon proper "evidence".  We have known for years that the scientific establishment hates mavericks and researchers who challenge the "consensus" or "accepted wisdom" - and it seems blissfully unaware of the irony of this situation, given the long history of religious and political suppression of scientific research and results.  The Flat Earth comes to mind, as do the names of Galileo, Stalin and Orwell.  The scientific establishment has already been heavily implicated in the disgraceful treatment meted out to such honest scientists as Pusztai, Ermakova, Carman, Chapela and Quist, Huber, Carrasco and Seralini.6  There is no sign of a change in this attitude.

What we want from Europe's Chief Scientist is a demonstration that she knows what science is and how it works, and an acceptance that "scientific evidence" exists on both sides of every scientific argument.  We want respect and recognition for those whose views she might not personally accept.  And we want an acceptance that in the field of GMOs (as in many others) there is no consensus about safety and environmental impacts.  Can she bring herself to make a simple statement to that effect?  On the current evidence in the public domain, we doubt it. 

Notes

[1]  http://www.euractiv.com/innovation-enterprise/chief-scientifc-adviser-policy-p-interview-514074
http://www.euractiv.com/science-policymaking/eu-chief-scientist-unethical-use-interview-530692

[2]  The assessment of GMOs in Europe must, by law, take into account both direct and indirect effects. It is therefore not acceptable to argue, as Glover seems to be doing, that only trait-specific effects should be examined and assessed. 
http://www.gmfreecymru.org/documents/gloverisms.html

[3]  'Scientific evidence is evidence which serves to either support or counter a scientific theory or hypothesis. Such evidence is expected to be empirical evidence and in accordance with scientific method. Standards for scientific evidence vary according to the field of inquiry, but the strength of scientific evidence is generally based on the results of statistical analysis and the strength of scientific controls.'   (Wikipedia)  '... the totality of scientific research outcomes in the field of GM crop safety is nuanced, complex, often contradictory or inconclusive, confounded by researchers' choices, assumptions, and funding sources, and in general, has raised more questions than it has currently answered'. ENSSER Statement signed by 297 scientists.

[4]  http://www.versaland.com/2013/01/23/critical-thought-for-earth/
Prof Don Huber, Emeritus Professor of Plant Pathology, Purdue University:  'The wealth of literature documenting these health and safety concerns continues to grow while I know of no long-term safety studies that indicate that our current glyphosate herbicide practices or GMO toxins in feed and food are safe.'  (Published Letter, 23 January 2013)

[5]  http://www.easac.eu/fileadmin/Reports/Planting_the_Future/EASAC_Planting_the_Future_LAY_SUMMARY.pdf
http://www.easac.eu/fileadmin/Reports/Planting_the_Future/EASAC_Planting_the_Future_FULL_REPORT.pdf

[6]  http://www.gmfreecymru.org.uk/pivotal_papers/manipulation.htm
http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2012/14514-smelling-a-corporate-rat-seralini-attackers-exposed
http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/scientific_integrity/how-corporations-corrupt-science.pdf