PRRI letter to the President-elect of the European Commission about Chief Science Advisors

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In a letter to Mr Jean-Claude Juncker PRRI underlines the extremely valuable role that chief scientific advisors have in governments and organisations, and expresses surprise that some organisations seem to be afraid that the EC President would have access to independent advice of a highly experienced and highly recognised scientist.

 

The full text of the letter:

 

To the President-elect of the European Commission,

Mr Jean-Claude Juncker

 

23 September 2014

 

Dear Mr. Juncker ,

On behalf of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI), I congratulate you with your appointment as President of the European Commission.

PRRI is a world-wide organisation of public sector scientists active in modern biotechnology for the common good. One of the main aims of PRRI is to bring more science to the debate on regulations and policies pertaining to modern biotechnology.

With this perspective, PRRI applauds you for confirming – in response to questions from MEPs – that the post of Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) will be continued during your presidency.

Chief scientific advisors are common and extremely valuable posts in many governments and organisations , because they assist in identifying available knowledge and scientific bodies for specific topics. In addition, chief scientific advisors safeguard scientific principles that are common across all scientific disciplines, such as ‘evidence based’, ‘peer reviewed’, ‘independent’ and ‘transparent’.

We take this opportunity to warmly commend Professor Anne Glover for her steadfastness in explaining and defending these and other scientific principles during her term as CSA.

PRRI wholeheartedly supports the call from medical groupsSense about Science, the European Plant Science Organisation, the European Federation for Science Journalism, and many other groups and individuals to retain the post of CSA and indeed to strengthen that post significantly.

Needless to say that we were surprised to learn that some organisations have called on you to “scrap the position” of CSA.  It is very remarkable that any organisation would be afraid of the EC President having access to the independent advice of a highly experienced and highly recognised top scientist.

Given that the arguments for the request of these groups illustrate some common misperceptions and misrepresentations in the public debate about the scientific process, we take below a closer look at the some of the arguments presented in their letter

Argument 1: “…The post of Chief Scientific Adviser is fundamentally problematic as it concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates in the course of policy elaboration.”

The notion that the post of CSA would concentrate too much influence in one person shows a poor understanding of the functioning of the CSA.  The claim that the post of CSA “undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates”  is unsubstantiated.

Argument 2: “… the role of Chief Scientific Adviser has been unaccountable, intransparent and controversial. While the current CSA and her opinions were very present in the media, the nature of her advice to the President of the European Commission remains unknown.”

The suggestion that ‘the role of the CSA has been unaccountable and intransparent’, shows an equally poor understanding of the mandate of the CSA, which is to “provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation as requested by the President”. This means that the CSA is accountable to the Commission President, whereby the normal rules of public information apply.  The claim that ‘the role of the CSA has been controversial’ is  – again – unsubstantiated.  While some groups may not welcome the evidence based opinion of an eminent scientist, that in itself does not make it controversial.

Argument 3: ‘… the current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety whereas this claim is contradicted by an international statement of scientists …”.

The suggestion that because a CSA  made statements about safety of GMOs that were not to the liking of these groups, the entire post of CSA should be eliminated, is very peculiar.

The argument specifically refers to a statement  published by the “European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility” (ENSER). That statement is equally peculiar, because – apart from the self-proclaimed ‘social and environmental responsibility’ – it is a statement reacting to newspaper headlines, and that rejects a claim that is not being made, all with flawed arguments. PRRI stands ready to elaborate on this if you wish.

For now we prefer to focus on an important aspect about GMOs that is often left out in the public debate on modern biotechnology, and that is the broader context, e.g. the urgent need to address the overwhelming challenges of strengthening food security and sustainable agricultural production.

As PRRI and various farmers organisations addressed in an earlier letter to EU institutions: if countries want to make farming more sustainable and be more self sufficient, then their farmers will need, among many other things, tools that are less detrimental to the environment and produce ‘more with less’, such  crop varieties that are less dependent on pesticides, that produce more per hectare, that require less mechanical soil treatment, that can withstand the effects of climate change, etc. Developing such crop varieties cannot be done by conventional breeding alone. Molecular techniques such as genetic modification can help overcome many of the limitations in plant breeding.

As should be the case with every new technology, the question about safety of GMOs has been addressed since the early publications of recombinant DNA in the 70s, and in the 40 years that have passed, and hundreds of millions of Euros have been spent on risk assessment research and many thousands of risk assessments for GMOs have been conducted.

This massive effort has resulted in some very solid conclusions:

  1. The technique of introducing genes via transformation carries in itself no inherent risks. Whether the resulting GMO has a potential for adverse effects can only be answered on a ‘case by case’ basis.
  2. The many thousands of risk assessments conducted to date for a good number of crop-trait combinations have shown that those GM crop plants are expected to be at least as safe as their non-modified counterparts.
  3. This is confirmed by the fact that GM crops have been grown by farmers for over 15 years on hundreds of millions of hectares and that have been widely consumed by humans and animals, without any indications to the contrary, as there are no verifiable reports of damage to human health or the environment caused by GMOs. (While on the other hand there are many verifiable reports on benefits for the environment and socio-economic benefits for farmers.)

These substantiated and qualified conclusions are confirmed by reports of the European Commission, academies of science, UN organisations etc.

The PRRI stands ready to elaborate on this and to assist the Commission in clarifying the scientific method and process to the general public.

Very sincerely

 

Em. Prof. Marc baron Van Montagu,

Chairman of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative  (PRRI)

World Food Prize Laureate 2013