After being rumored for some time, the E.U. has now abolished the post of Chief Scientific Adviser. I have been following this from a distance, and although there may be some nuances that I am unaware of, my first reaction is that I am in agreement with Mark Lynas, namely that
“This is a dark day for science in Europe. Instead of having scientific advice at the heart of European policymaking, the Juncker Commission clearly wants to remove any person who might bring inconvenient scientific truths to the top EU table. Sadly, this is all too consistent with European moves to back away from evidence-based policymaking – if you can’t change the science you muzzle the scientists or keep them out of the room when powerful people are taking decisions.”
It is also clear that this move was undertaken in response to a concerted lobbying effort by various groups who opposed the position by noting:
“…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.” [Emphasis added]
The language may sound familiar: Opposition to a scientific position by claiming that the position undermines science. Straight out of the playbook of the Merchants of Doubt. Straight out of the tobacco industry’s strategy to call their opposition to medical research “sound science”—which of course it was not.
So who was doing the lobbying, and who claimed that a Chief Scientific Adviser undermines scientific research?
It was Greenpeace.
Greenpeace and a number of other environmental organizations that co-signed a letter to the President-elect of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker.
Bob Ward succinctly summarized the implications of this:
When NGOs pick and choose which science to accept, they are no better than climate change ‘sceptics’.
— Bob Ward (@ret_ward) November 13, 2014
Does this mean there can be no public debate about GMOs, and that “science”, however it is best defined in this instance, should have the final word?
No, far from it, in the same way that a disembodied appeal to “science” cannot solve the risk from climate change. Ultimately, we have to make decisions about policies and those decisions require debate with input from all stakeholders and the public—whether they are “skeptic” about climate change or GMOs or not.
The problem arises when the politics—and their offshoot, so-called “skepticism”—seek to influence or deny the science rather than addressing the policies that deal with the scientific evidence.
It’s one thing to argue against Monsanto or against a carbon trading scheme, but quite another to seek to muzzle inconvenient scientists or to get rid of an advisory position altogether.
It’s one thing to oppose corporate profits but quite another to destroy a field experiment involving GMOs, as Greenpeace has done in Australia.
Unfortunately, at least at first glance, in the GMO arena Greenpeace and its allies seem to have taken a page from the playbook of operators whom they would implacably oppose on other issues, such as climate change.
The irony is distressing, but it also underscores that, psychologically, cognitively, and politically, science denial is denial is denial is denial. Wherever it happens to be pointing.