Experts are voting politically

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One issue that has not come up in the debate on EU membership is the position of the European Commission on science and evidence based decision making.

To be fair officials would probably claim this is how they try to make decisions, but the process is skewed by a minority of member states and a decision making process that demands a qualified majority, based on voting strength. This is akin to Muirfield losing the Open Championship golf, because while a majority voted in favour of allowing women members this did not achieve a two-thirds yes, which is effectively how qualified majority voting works in Europe.

This anti-science approach has been around for years in Brussels. It reflects the lobbying power of activist green groups, and how the commission and member state governments run frightened of them, granting them more power than justified by their political strength. Every so often this become more apparent, and that is the case now. Glyphostate, the active ingredient in Roundup and the world’s most widely used herbicide is a prime example. Re-licensing this product for 15 years should have been an easy decision, but it has become controversial because of efforts to use this as a line in the sand against agrochemicals in agriculture. If the commission loses this battle it will add fuel to the case against these products, making all re-licensing more difficult. The outcome would be an inevitable erosion of the competitive position of European agriculture, since no other country is considering imposing similar restrictions.

Where things go wrong is when member states move away from evidence based decisions. That is the process that is the basis of medicine, and it can always be fully justified. Apart from one suggestion of theoretical possibility that glyphosate could have carcinogenic properties all the science, including advice from the commission’s own advisers, is that the product is safe and should be re-licensed with no concerns. That has not happened, and instead member states scientists that are supposed to be experts are again voting politically and ignoring the evidence. The result will be an untidy compromise somewhere down the road. But the decision by France to ban glyphosate for populist reasons, regardless of what the EU decides, will mean that it will remain in the political firing line elsewhere for no good reason. It is a small step from that to demanding that supermarkets deliver ‘glyphosate free’ food products, as has been the case with genetically modified products for some years.

Advocating science in Brussels is not a road to success, as Scotland’s Professor Anne Glover found. Her post as chief scientific adviser was axed in favour of a committee when Jean Claude Juncker came to power as European Commission president. This was despite her brilliant academic record, and the fact that her only mistake, in the eyes of Juncker, had been her commitment to science as a basis for decision making on GM crops. This is the approach anyone would expect a chief scientist to take, but clearly not in the commission. This was another victory for the green lobby, although some in the science community risked the wrath of the commission and member states doling out research funding by exposing what a bad decision this was.

A year on Anne Glover is still a voice of reason in this debate, and now she has won the support of the president of the prestigious Royal Society. At a recent conference she again made clear that in her role in Brussels she was not arguing for GM crops. What she wanted was a commitment to evidence based decision making. That is about heeding scientific advice and making decisions that can be justified, and then being prepared to defend them. Explain that to the average person and they will accept it and be happy with the decision. However for green groups this is not about science, but politics and evidence based decision making is not their thing. This is fair enough – it is the stance they would be expected to take. However it is wrong to shape policy and decision making to suit their agenda. This flawed approach to decision making is now endemic in Brussels. This will not change until member states are prepared to demand proper majority voting on scientific issues, and not the EU system that unnecessarily politicises too many decisions.