A WHILE AGO I bumped into Professor Anne Glover, the then Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) to the President of the European Union at a conference in Berlin.
She told me she had been very impressed by the quality of the small team of experts that she led in Brussels; they were genuinely very thorough and careful and ensured that all relevant evidence underpinning a possible policy development was fully assessed and, as a result, their recommendations were all soundly based.
Her main problem, she said, was when pressure groups, or politicians from member states, got involved they were happy to ignore the evidence and take a stance with no sensible justification but which appealed to their various whims.
Professor Glover fell foul of such pressures at the end of 2014 when her contract was not renewed after what many people perceived as a protest campaign targeted at her from Greenpeace. They had been unhappy about her declared stance on genetically modified (GM) agriculture which she is convinced to be completely safe – this being an area in which Glover happens to be an expert.
The CSA post at the EU has not been re-appointed and now appears to have been abolished. The clear implication to be drawn is that those at the heart of the EU prefer ignorance to knowledge.
And pretty much the same situation has pervaded recently here in Scotland. Glover’s successor as Scotland’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Muffy Calder, announced in August that at the completion of her contract, she was returning to the University of Glasgow as a Vice Principal.
Over six months after she announced her departure and over two months since she actually left office, on March 12th they have finally got round to advertising the position. This foot dragging leads you to the assumption that the Scottish Government, like the EU one, doesn’t really want any expert advice to get in the way of their policy making.
And maybe there is some weird political logic to this as several Scottish policy decisions make little sense if you look at the evidence behind them.
Despite years of trouble-free experience from the USA and around the world – not to mention Glover’s expert opinion – there remains no appetite for Scotland to adopt GM technology, which would significantly improve our agricultural productivity and competitiveness.
We have a declared policy in Scotland to replace our old dirty, coal-based power generation with renewable energy and low CO2 production like gas. But despite the fact that the best form of large volume, low CO2 production is by nuclear power, we have decided against this method.
The global oil industry actually started here in Scotland in the 19th century when James Young extracted the first commercial oil from our own shale reserves; however, these days both the SNP and Labour have declared themselves against the development of fracking to retrieve our own gas.
It seems that they prefer to stay dependent on supplies from repressive and dangerous foreigners in Russia and the Middle East than to develop a local, safe, supply of energy under our own control. Fergus Ewing has unbelievably suggested that Scotland might now build a new coal-fired power station.
The clear message, here in Scotland, seems to be ‘no evidence please, we’re politicians’.
Ian Ritchie was the Co-Chair of the Scottish Science Advisory Council from 2009-2011, along with Anne Glover, as Scotland’s CSA.