1. Thanks for talking to us Anne – please can you start by telling us what your role as Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission involves?
My job consists of four main strands. First, I advise President Barroso on any aspect of science & technology. Second, I liaise with other science advisory bodies of the Commission, in the Member States and beyond – this is important to ensure that science gives a coherent message. Third, I have an early warning function, looking into science & technology foresight and spot developments that may represent an opportunity or threat for Europe. And fourth, I promote the European culture of science & technology wherever I go. Actually, there is also a fifth function which is written down nowhere, but people feel that I am the Scientific Ombudsman of the Commission to which they can go when they feel that Commission services ignore the evidence.
2. You’re also Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Aberdeen. How have you managed to juggle the two roles?
Obviously, being a Chief Scientific Adviser in the European Commission is a full-time job, so my own research activities are currently rather limited. I have kept, however, my research lab in Aberdeen and continue to be involved with it because I think it is very important in such a position to keep my feet on the ground and remain credible in the scientific community. I have an agreement with my employer that I can spend a few days per year in the lab. In between, modern communication technologies help a lot to stay in touch with the people there. But obviously I had to agree that for instance my lab won't apply for EU money to avoid any conflicts of interest.
3. Before working for the EC you were Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland – was that a good preparation for your current role?
My experience in Scotland was certainly very helpful in terms of knowing how to fill such a role and get acquainted with the possibilities and pitfalls. When I started as a Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland, the government had no clue what the role would entail, nor did I. Now at least I know what I can and should do, while the European Commission is still on the learning curve. In any case, the European Union is an entirely different beast. First, the scale is entirely different: Scotland has 5 million inhabitants, the EU has 500 million. So the magnitude of the challenges is much bigger. Second, the enormous cultural and linguistic diversity of the continent - which is, in fact, Europe's biggest strength - makes different attitudes and mentalities clash with each other. That's thrilling, but time-consuming. And third, European policy-making works in a completely different way than national policy-making due to the setup of the European Institutions. When I convinced the First Minister in Scotland that something would be the right thing to do, it was done. When I convince President Barroso of a particular idea he tells me: right, and now go and convince 28 Member States. It is a very complex setup, which is perhaps one of the reasons why scientists in the past were rather reluctant to raise their voice in Brussels.
4. You’re about halfway through your tenure now – what have been your biggest challenges and achievements to date?
The biggest challenge has been of course the setting up of the position itself. This starts with very practical organizational issues that often require imaginative solutions – getting things done in Brussels is not always straight forward. But most importantly, the biggest challenge is one of changing mind-sets: to convince people that it is a good thing to have somebody like a Chief Scientific Adviser who is an independent voice and is able to point to the big elephant in the room nobody dares to talk about. People are starting to appreciate that this is, in fact, very helpful and eases discussions, also for sensitive or controversial topics. People are getting a real appetite for the role and are engaging in debates around the scientific evidence. But if you see how public opinion differs across Member States on issues like genetically modified organisms, then you will understand that we still have quite some way to go.
5. What are your priorities for the rest of your tenure?
There are a couple of initiatives which I started and which I would like to see take off in the months to come. The most important one is to establish a European network of government science advisers. This would enable science advisers to share a common view about the scientific consensus on a particular issue and ensure that Heads of State are briefed in a coherent manner when coming to Brussels to decide on often highly technical matters. Structures in Member States differ quite a lot, of course, but I am getting a lot of support when talking national science ministers about it. Another big issue is the impact assessment process, which is currently being reviewed by the European Commission. It is still very much focusing on economic impacts, less so on social ones, and is too much driven by a risk-avoiding than a risk-embracing approach. If Europe wants to be ahead of the pack in a globalized economy, we need to have a more constructive approach to managing risk. This can be achieved by putting risk in relation to the potential reward.
6. You’ve said that you what you do is science for policy, not policy for science – what do you mean by this?
It's quite simple: I am not dealing with research policies, that is Horizon 2020 and similar funding instruments, which are being dealt with by Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn and DG Research and Innovation, partly also DG Education and Culture. I do have my opinion, of course, and am happy to provide it when requested, but my focus is on what science can do to deliver better policies and ultimately a more rewarding life for all of us. This cuts across the entire Commission and across all policy areas. So I am here to say what science can do for you, rather than asking what you should do for science.
7. Equality issues are very important to you, especially in terms of attracting and – most importantly – retaining more women in science. What are the biggest blockers to achieving this and how could they be overcome?
The problem is not that women are not interested in science, on the contrary. The problem is that we lose too many bright young talents as their career progresses just because the framework conditions are not right. This has to do with childcare facilities, with flexibility at the workplace, with the possibility of re-entering after a career break, but often also very simple, subtle issues such as the way vacancy notices are formulated. I am convinced that with the stiff competition from other parts of the world and an ageing society Europe simply cannot afford any longer to lose all these brains. What is so fabulous about Europe is that we can learn from best practice examples that can be found in the different countries, for instance Finland or Denmark.
8. What do you see as the role of societies in scholarly communication today and how do you think this will change in the future?
Learned societies play an absolutely crucial role in science communication and that is because they are true societies in the sense of the word. They gather all the experts in a given field – many societies do not only have members from the academic environment, but also practitioners (e.g. working in ministries, agencies, planning offices, consultancies, industry…), school teachers and ordinary citizens. They foster societal dialogue, at the national level (e.g. via the academies), but also at local level as many of them have local or regional chapters. They engage with the public and bring science into the neighborhood, often on a volunteer basis. Let's not forget that it is mainly learned societies who organize "citizen science". Citizen science wouldn't happen if there wasn't an organization providing the templates and methodologies. For instance, all the hobby bird watchers are organized in learned societies. Other examples are astronomy or environmental monitoring where citizen science wouldn't be possible without learned societies getting the hobby scientists lined up and working towards a common goal. With all the new ICT technologies this is an area that will see exponential growth in the future.
9. Could they play a larger role in policy making in future, by representing their members’ needs to the research funders, institutions, and others who are setting policy?
There is definitely a niche for the learned societies in the policy-making process. I don't want to talk here about "representing their members' needs" (that's policy for science), but actually about what learned societies can offer to policy-makers. And that's an awful lot. Apart from the science academies with all their reputation there are so many learned societies out there who could, for instance, summarize the state of the art on a given topic and advise policy-makers accordingly. They have access to all the experts and at the same time they are vibrant communities active at the frontiers of knowledge. So they could also play an important role in scanning what is coming up on the horizon. Being the ones organizing citizen science, learned societies are also the ones sitting on all the wealth of citizen science data. This is still a largely untapped resource for policy advice, although there are good examples of where it is used, e.g. by the European Environment Agency. But for all this to happen it is necessary that the learned societies themselves recognize that there is a role for them to support evidence-based policies. They need to work hard and collaborate with each other to identify how they can best have impact in policy-making and I am pleased to work with them to achieve that.
10. What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges facing learned societies?
Let's face it: the landscape of learned societies is extremely fragmented. There are literally thousands of them in Europe and new ones pop up almost on a weekly basis. There are big ones such as the British Ecological Society with its 4000 members, but also very small ones. Some national learned societies have founded European roof organizations (such as the European Ecological Federation representing the national ecological societies), but this is still an exception. Moreover, there is no European roof organization that represents all the learned societies as a whole, a kind of European ICSU. This makes it very difficult for policy-makers at all levels to interact with them because nobody knows which number to dial. We should also not forget that, apart from the academies with their history and real estates, learned societies are very weak from an organizational point of view. This is because they fund their activities almost entirely by individual membership fees. So funding is definitely an issue. Despite these shortcomings I believe that learned societies can play (and do play) a pivotal role in science communication and education. As they bring together all the expert communities – no matter whether they have a university degree or not – they could also serve as test-beds to see whether a particular policy idea is going to fly or not. And that would sometimes really be useful before policies are adopted. But again: learned societies need to get their act together and raise their voice in Brussels, in a coordinated manner. Otherwise, NGOs with vested interests will always have a stronger standing – and some of their views are not at all based on the best possible balanced evidence.