Science in Europe on the Verge of Entering a Time of Political Ignorance

Jens Sundström

November 24, 2014

Last week European scientists had their gaze fixed up in space and celebrated the successful touchdown of the Rosetta lander on Comet 67P. Meanwhile back on earth, science, at least in Europe, had little cause for celebration.

Three political decisions signal that science in Europe now is on the verge of entering a time of political ignorance.

First, the European Commission decided to revoke the position of Chief Scientific Advisor held by the British professor Anne Glover. In her position as Scientific dvisor, Professor Glover has gained much respect and admiration for her consistent advocacy for science-based decision making, whenever appropriate.

The proposal to scrap the position as Chief Scientific Advisor has been known for a while and several scientific organizations have reacted with dismay. For instance, the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) lamented that policy makers or lobbyists who seek to remove scientists because they do not like their findings or advice do so at the peril of their citizens. It has also been known that Greenpeace and several other environmental NGOs have been putting pressure on EU president Juncker to dismiss Professor Glover since they did not approve on her advice regarding biotechnology and crops bred with modern molecular tools. The decision to give in greatly undermines the confidence that EU will maintain science s rightful place in policy making, especially on environmental and agricultural issues.

Secondly, the European Parliament Environment Committee voted on a proposal to nationalize the decisions to approve cultivation of GM-crops in Europe. The original proposal was meant to break the deadlock that now prevails, and allow for individual countries to cultivate GM-crops that have passed the rigorous risk-assessment upheld in Europe. However, during the voting, the original proposal was radically changed and it is now possible to ignore science and ban cultivation of GM-crops solely on political or ideological grounds. Greenpeace applauds the decision and says, Thumbs up to the new Parliament for wanting to secure a GM-free agriculture and environment The Parliament has radically improved the text . This makes it clear that this proposal, in fact, is a step in the campaign to stop the use of modern plant breeding in the EU. Also, it shows that Greenpeace and other anti-GMO lobbies have a profound influence on the decisions taken in Brussels.

Finally, in my own home country, Sweden, the newly appointed Green/Social-democratic government has abandoned a long tradition of following the scientific recommendations provided by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on issues concerning food safety and GM-crops. During the last meeting of the EU standing committee , which votes on approvals of GM-crops, the Swedish representative was instructed to abstain. This is a radical deviation from our previous position and is in clear conflict with the principle of science-based decision-making.

I view these examples as symptoms of a growing international phenomenon that affects not only science but also environmental politics. Parts of the environmental movement have grown into a protest industry that increasingly moves away from science. Their agenda comprises destruction of field trials, production of slanted studies and extensive lobbying to influence agricultural- and research-politics. Sadly, the three examples represent the latest additions on a slippery road, pawed by the NGOs and unsuspectingly headed by European politicians, of which only few seem to have the wits and courage to stand up for Science.

Associate professor Jens Sundström is senior lecturer and extension specialist in biotechnology at the Swedish Agricultural University in Uppsala. He earned is PhD degree from Uppsala University and received postdoctoral training at Yale University. His research interests comprise evolution and development of reproductive structures in flowering plants and gymnosperms. As extension specialist he has written extensively about the importance of modern plant breeding technologies for the development of a sustainable agriculture.