Did chief scientific advisor Anne Glover's intervention in the EU's plan to regulate endocrine disruptors help science – or industry lobbying?

EXCERPT (item 1): Glover showed highly questionable judgement in lending credence to the industry-manufactured "debate" over endocrine disrupting chemicals in the first place. Unwittingly or not, her intervention had the effect of helping to stall the Commission's action against EDCs.

1. Why the chief scientific advisor role is part of the problem, not the solution
2. The EU needs good science policy. But does that mean it needs a Chief Scientific Adviser?

1. Why the chief scientific advisor role is part of the problem, not the solution

Claire Robinson
GMWatch, 30 August 2014

In the row that has sprung up over NGOs' call for the European Commission to scrap the position of the chief scientific advisor (CSA), one of the signatory organisations, Corporate Europe Observatory, wrote:

"Giving a single advisor the power to bypass the work of the hundreds of officials and scientists already gathering scientific evidence for policy-making within or for the EU institutions, as happened in the endocrine disruptors dossier, is not a solution: it is an additional problem."

As an example, CEO referred to the intervention of the current CSA, Anne Glover, in the battle over endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that took place recently in Europe. Glover's role in this process raises questions about the purpose and nature of the role of CSA. Is the CSA role a clarifying scientific voice, or is there is a risk that it can lend a cloak of scientific credibility to industry lobbying?

EDCs are chemicals that can "hack" your hormones. They are suspected of playing a role in a host of serious diseases, including cancer, birth defects, and developmental problems in children. They can even make male fish into females.

The European Union had decided that EDCs needed to be regulated more strictly. That would inevitably have led to a ban on many pesticides and other chemicals.

What happened next is reported in a new documentary film, Endocrination, as well as in an article for Environmental Health News by the French investigative journalist, Stéphane Horel.  

A group of scientific journal editors wrote an emotive lobbying editorial opposing the plans as "scientifically unfounded precaution" and as contrary to "common sense", which was published in several scientific journals.

The journal editors rebuked the Commission for a framework “based on virtually complete ignorance of all well-established and taught principles of pharmacology and toxicology". They said that safety thresholds could be set for endocrine disruptors, below which they can be assumed to be harmless. They also said that toxicologists should distinguish between the effects the hormonal system can adapt to and actual adverse effects.

In a parallel initiative, a letter was written to Glover, asking her to intervene and "review… the emerging policy". The letter was signed by 71 scientists, including some of those who signed the original editorial.

Clearly these scientists viewed Glover as a safe pair of hands in persuading the EU Commission not to regulate EDCs.

Glover immediately sent a letter to key Commission staff, including Commission Secretary General Catherine Day, citing the points made by the lobbying editorial and letter.[1]

Glover also wrote to the letter-writers, concluding that there was "scientific uncertainty" about endocrine disruption.

Those unfamiliar with the state of the science and the corporate lobbying around EDCs may think that Glover's conclusion of "scientific uncertainty" is harmless and even prudent. But given the vast body of evidence showing that ECDs pose a global health threat, this conclusion is at least 20 years out of date.

And contrary to the unsubstantiated claim by the former Burson Marsteller consultant and defender of the CSA position, David Zaruk, "Rather than leaving the president of the Commission confused, the chief scientific adviser… sifts through the evidence and advises on the best position according to the available information", Glover appears not to have reviewed any of the evidence on EDCs before arriving at her conclusion.

Even if Glover's intentions were the very best, her conclusion happened to be perfectly in line with the lobbying messages of the pesticide and chemical companies, which are attempting to manufacture doubt about the risks of EDCs. Glover's official seal on the "scientific uncertainty" position was akin to rubber-stamping the tobacco lobby's claims that there is scientific doubt about the ill effects of smoking.

Seventeen out of the 18 journal editors who wrote the lobbying editorial were subsequently exposed by Horel as having conflicts of interest with industry. These interests were undeclared in the editorial, even though it is standard practice for authors to declare such interests when publishing articles in scientific journals. At least 40 of the 71 scientists who wrote the letter to Glover also have ties to various industries. Unsurprisingly, the European Crop Protection Association, the lobby organization for the pesticides industry, backed the letter.

The journal editors' arguments were exposed as flawed by a large number of scientists, who published two detailed rebuttals in scientific journals.

The second rebuttal called the lobbying editorial "a profound disservice" to the European Commission, science, and public health.

Nonetheless, Glover took the lobbying editorial and letter seriously, organising a meeting in her office between the two opposing parties of scientists.

During this meeting, the authors of the editorial had to admit that they were largely wrong. Together with scientists from the pro-public health side of the controversy, they even signed a consensus document agreeing that it is possible that "safe" thresholds for EDCs do not exist and that nonlinear effects do exist. The revolutionary implications of the latter statement are that so-called "safe" levels set from industry regulatory experiments using high doses may not be safe at all.

That should have been the end of the story, and the plans to regulate EDCs should have forged ahead. Glover is to be commended for arranging the meeting in her office and pulling the consensus document out of the process. Yet this contribution came too late to do any good, and we'd be entitled to ask whether she is putting it to good use by pressing the point home that in fact there is no "debate".

More importantly, Glover showed highly questionable judgement in lending credence to the industry-manufactured "debate" over EDCs in the first place. Unwittingly or not, her intervention had the effect of helping to stall the Commission's action against EDCs. The Commission Secretary General Catherine Day was provided with an excuse to put off the hard decisions about regulating EDCs until an "impact assessment" had been conducted. Day used the "diverging views held by the stakeholder community"[2] as an excuse – an excuse provided by what many would consider a fake "debate", which Glover legitimised by intervening in the normal scientific decision-making process. The impact assessment will investigate the economic impacts of regulatory action against EDCs and will take at least a year.    

The upshot is that the initiative to regulate endocrine disruptors more strictly has been derailed and the Commission has got itself tied up in arguments about the economic impact of the plan even before establishing scientific criteria to define what EDCs are. Meanwhile the pesticide and chemicals industry get to keep their dangerous products on the market for some time longer – while we get sicker and wildlife species get even more sexually confused.

Many have defended the role of EU chief scientific advisor on the assumption that this additional layer of scientific advice must mean more and better science, and that must be a good thing. Those people would do well to watch Horel's film, bearing in mind this question: is the short-circuiting of the usual complex and multidisciplinary channels of scientific advice enabled by the CSA role democratic, transparent, or scientifically rigorous?

Horel's film is currently available on Youtube in English and in French – though it's already been removed from Youtube once, so you may have to hunt for it. It's well worth watching in full. The section about Glover's role starts about 43 minutes in.


1. Glover A (2013). Note to Karl Falkenberg, Director-General ENV [CC'd to others]: Subject: Endocrine disruptors. 20 June. Released to Stéphane Horel as a result of FoI request.

2. Day C (2013). Note for the attention of Mr K. Falkenberg, Director-General, DG Env., Ms P. Testori Coggi, Director-General, DG Sanco: Subject: Endocrine disruptors – next steps. 2 July. Released to Stéphane Horel as a result of FoI request.

2. The EU needs good science policy. But does that mean it needs a Chief Scientific Adviser?

Doug Parr
The Guardian, 29 August 2014

* The new head of the EU Commission is being challenged over whether to continue with the post of EU Chief Scientific Adviser. Doug Parr explains why

The new head of the EU Commission is being challenged over whether to continue with the post of EU Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) originally created by outgoing President Barroso. Controversy has emerged over whether the post helps or hinders the EU incorporating the best science into policy.

An initial letter setting out some of the issues and calling for the post to be abolished was signed by 9 non-governmental organisations. There was a strong reaction from other groups and scientists who equated the call for the abolition of the CSA post as being an attack on the “integrity and independence of scientific advice”. This is a bit odd. By analogy, one would not automatically assume pointing out a medical doctor wasn’t doing a good job as being an “attack on integrity of healthcare”. Now, the original group calling for the post to be abolished has tripled in size as more NGOs from the environment, health and governance sectors have joined in with a second letter explaining further why the CSA post is an impediment to good science in policy making.

The core issue is about the integrity of science advice and process. Science in policy cannot rely on the opinions of a limited number of individuals – whatever their eminence – but needs good processes which gather and test evidence, including, crucially, what can be understood about the extent of uncertainty and ignorance, and clarity and justification for where contested values and judgements shape scientific advice. Advice also needs to be transparent and as far as possible, independent from key economic interests.

Of course, EU science advice does not necessarily live up to this ideal. The EU has a vast amount of science advice and evidence gathering capability. The Joint Research Centre and European Environment Agency produce masses of evidence and reports, at the request of the Commission or independently. Existing Commission Directorates have numerous advisory committees. But the quality of science advice and input can be variable. For example, the PRIMES model used for assessing the impact of climate and energy policy has been heavily criticised by civil society groups and business groups as well as commission advisers for its lack of transparency and questionable methodology. And sometimes the gap between broad reviews of science, and the resulting policy it delivers is large. Think bioenergy, for example, where the gap between what science tells us about of carbon management and actual policy on use of wood as fuel is large. But the problem here is the ability of decision makers to incorporate principles and insights into evidence gathering and policy-making.

The CSA post is neither designed nor equipped to address these weaknesses. Instead, it adds one more scientific advisory post, functioning in a flawed way. Flawed, because some of the activity of the CSA so far appears to have run directly contrary to science advice principles like transparency and clarity of responsibilities. Her advice to President Barroso is not public and she has recently commented that, far from the robust levels of accountability and justification appropriate to good science advice, her advisory opinions should remain “not transparent” and “immune from public scrutiny.” The CSA also intervened over the strategy for endocrine-disrupting chemicals, confusing the responsibilities between DG Environment and her own office. The intervention resulted from direct lobbying from small group of scientists with what was subsequently found to be of a flawed interpretation of research. In other words, an intervention which disrupted existing processes and responsibilities on the basis of mistaken science.

Having the opinion of a CSA substitute for wide appraisals of individual directorates and committees leads to a situation where lobbying key individuals like the CSA can have a huge impact, to the detriment of the wider public interest. It’s a point not lost on Business Europe, who have lobbied for the retention of the CSA post, but whose record on environmental matters is so poor that progressive companies like Unilever are choosing to terminate their membership.

The lobbying issue is a serious one. The political ecology of Brussels includes a heavy presence of corporate lobbyists – said to be second only to Washington. Society needs broad based, open evidence gathering to act as a bulwark against a policy stitch up in favour of vested interests. A real worry for civil society signatories to the letter about the CSA is that in simple lobbying muscle, corporate lobbyists are always going to win out against those acting for the public interest. Those rigorous science processes are needed as a defence.

Those calling for retention of the post are doing so because they like the idea of science playing a leading role in policy formation. So do we. But why assume that having more science advisers when there already plenty will make the system work any better? The key issue is how it should be done. Disagreeing with one model of science policy advice isn’t ‘anti-science’. The only member state with a full time CSA is the UK, and for the EU that model hinders rather than helps.  

Dr Doug Parr is chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace UK