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by Rory Cahill
11 July 2014
The European Question

The European Question

Anne Glover is very much a Scot abroad. She’s based in Brussels for now, in the final months of her term as Chief Scientific Adviser to outgoing European Commission President Manuel Barroso, but her heart clearly remains in Alba.

It isn’t that the job has lacked challenge and reward. It is simply that Glover very much loves the country of her birth, one in which she was educated, worked and served as Chief Scientific Adviser to two First Ministers.

“You might think this is funny, but Edinburgh is a true international city. Brussels is not the same. Edinburgh is international down to its core. Brussels is international superficially. It is international, yes, in that there are a lot of people here from all over the world, not just the EU, but Asia, North America and so on all have their ambassadors and representatives here in Brussels and so do the companies.

“But people don’t feel they belong to Brussels. There’s no investment. I was a student in Edinburgh but then left and was away for a long time before I returned and stayed there when I was the Chief Scientific Adviser. Edinburgh has a heart, you’re part of it when you live there and it is really home. I have been here (Brussels) for two and a half years and it is really interesting, but it is not home,” she says.

Glover has been in post since January 2012. And just as Brussels is a different city to Edinburgh, so European politics is very far removed from Scottish or Westminster ways, as befits a polity comprising 28 sovereign member states.

Decisions can, and almost do, take a long time to make and even longer to put into action. Glover’s own role was created by Barroso in 2009. And while Glover did have discussions with the President in 2011, it took over two years from the role formally existing to when she finally began work.

“It is quite a complicated environment and it is both challenging and rewarding but also frustrating in a certain way, so that’s why the job is very different because in a single member state, or in a devolved government such as Scotland, you have a very close relationship between deciding something and doing something.

“Whereas here you might decide something is a good idea, but you still have to negotiate it with 28 member states who all have different cultural values, different objectives, different interests, so that becomes truly very interesting,” she observes.

Glover says that her role allows her a wide degree of freedom, and that she has close and regular contact with President Barroso. Her large office on the upper levels of the Berlaymont building that forms the heart of the European Quarter in the Belgian capital certainly suggests someone well up the pecking order. But at the same time, when she arrived, she was afforded resources so limited that she didn’t have any staff and had to work hard to get the funding to employ assistants. Even now, at the end of her term, she has fewer resources to work with than she did in Scotland.

Glover gives an example of the way in which her role operates on a day to day basis: “The thing is because I am Chief Scientific Adviser to President Barroso, he may ask me at any time, can I provide him with a briefing on key areas of interest in science, engineering and technology and similarly, and more frequently, I am pro-active in saying to him, there are some things that Europe has a real opportunity in, or faces a threat, and we need to look at it.

“A good example of that might be around high performance computing. It isn’t my area because I’m a molecular biologist but many people often say that if you out compute, you out compete. If you look at the EU, what is our capacity for high performance computing, not just for science but for business?

“Even if you are a small business as opposed to a multinational, you often need really high powered computing analysis, because everybody has heard of Big Data, we have more and more information, how do we use it meaningfully in making a difference in whatever area, we work in. That was something I briefed President Barroso on; I made some recommendations about what we might do.”

This work is still ongoing through the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe and involves continent-wide collaboration. But Glover says she knows that had she not had the ear of the EC President, it would not have had the traction it did.

Now for the part we’ve all been waiting for – independence. While one would hope that Glover’s standing as one of the world’s leading scientists, with experience working with both Labour and SNP administrations at Holyrood, would grant her more gravitas than recent commentators on Scottish independence – like furry-footed thespian Elijah Wood, or prominent children’s author JK Rowling – it is important to state that she does not give a view on whether Scotland should be independent or not.

Instead, she’s asked to assess the situation as a scientist would, to look at the evidence, the facts, and form a view accordingly. No doubt the two sides of the debate will find material to trumpet or scoff at, but those views are an interpretation of what Glover set out. It would be, frankly, inaccurate to claim that she has expressed a view for or against the question being asked of the Scottish people on 18 September.

The first question is simple: what would change for science in Scotland in the event of a Yes vote in September?

“I wouldn’t immediately see what would change in as much as science is a collaborative process. Science which is only of interest to the person on the bench next to you is not normally of great importance. If you look at the scientific effort of Scottish research, this is something I did while I was in Scotland, which was commission the first report to look at what is the impact of the science done in Scotland compared to the rest of the world.

“Obviously we were utterly delighted at the time, this was in 2007, to be able to demonstrate that by independent analysis, relative to GDP, the impact of science done in Scotland was number one in the world. That is just mind blowing.

“On the 19th of September I don’t see that changing because if I am in China or in North America, I want to work with the best and if the best are in Scotland, I’m still going to work with the best.”

Glover says that the best minds in science and associated fields have a checklist of factors that feed into where they choose to undertake their work.

“I think that generally scientists and most I have spoken to agree with what I am going to say, which is that as a scientist, the most important thing to me is the people I am going to be working with. I want to see who is there already.

“The second most important thing to me, and it is very close, is what are the facilities like? If I go there, am I going to be able to do the sort of work I want to be able to do? The third thing is, and these are pretty much on a level, is how well is science supported where I am going? How am I going to get funding? What resources can I access so that I will be able to continue to do what I do?

“The fourth one is pretty important, and that is, what’s it like outside? I’m not in the lab 24 hours a day and I have a family and they will all be interested in where we live and work and I’ve got to think is this a nice place to live and I think at the moment, Scotland is ticking all those boxes, as are many centres of excellence across Europe,” she says.

The impact of a possible Yes vote on Scotland’s ability to continue funding world-class scientific research has been a particular bone of contention in the independence debate. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said that research funding could dry up for an independent Scotland.

“Scotland could find itself outside the loop, cut off not just from UK funding of Scottish research but from UK-wide collaborative projects and consequently, far less able to play what most Scottish people will want: the fullest part possible in the biggest push Europe has yet seen to find better ways of treating and curing diseases such as cancer,” he said in June.

But Glover makes clear that an independent Scotland could still access key European research funding streams, notably the Horizon 2020 framework which is distributing €80bn over the seven years from 2014 to 2020.

She points out that EU membership for an independent Scotland in itself – another oft debated issue we can thankfully avoid delving into here – is not a prerequisite to accessing the lucrative initiative.

“Without doubt, Scotland’s research intensity is of tremendous value to the rest of the UK and similarly, the rest of the UK is of tremendous value to what is being supported in Scotland. And also, there’s access to European Union funding as well. I think that particularly because we have the Horizon 2020 funding here, and that is the only budget that has been strengthened in the commission, every other budget has decreased, it is a really good resource for scientists to be able to access because it is additional, it is kind of added value to what you get in your own member state and most importantly, it allows you free movement and the ability to put together very exciting networks.

“Access to that would be desirable and that can be achieved in a number of ways. The European Research Area is different from the European Union. To be in the EU you have to be a member state. For the ERA there are members who are not member states such as Israel, Switzerland, Norway and they make an arrangement whereby there is a negotiation to allow that particular country to become involved in Horizon 2020 and other programmes.

“That might be something that would be acceptable. It would sort of be for scientists within Scotland to provide evidence and advice on questions that need to be asked to be able to not just protect the current excellence of Scottish science because good science done in Scotland is of value to everyone in the world, not just Scotland.”

Glover also voices concern about the state of research funding in the UK itself. She points out that states hit hard by the euro crisis like Greece are actually increasing their funding in research and innovation, presenting the risk that the UK could, despite being in a stronger position, lose ground over time.

She says: “A question mark for me, looking at the UK, because the UK is tremendously strong in science, engineering and technology, we are one of the strongest member states and yet the budget, and although I think the term is that it is being ‘protected’ in cash terms, but inevitably what that means is, because of inflation, we might be in danger of not being as competitive as other member states that have decided to increase investment.”

With the end of her term rapidly approaching – “I knew when I started it would go like a click of the fingers and it has” – Glover’s final project is to convince the incoming commission of the value of her role and the need to find a replacement who can expand on the foundations she has laid.

And what now for Glover? With a long and successful career as a molecular biologist before moving into the advisory and advocacy world, does she feel the call of the lab coat and microscope? Or will she use this prestigious post as a springboard into further roles of a similar nature, perhaps at the UN? And then there is always the private sector, which would inevitably be prepared to part with large sums to secure her vast talent and experience, not to mention political contacts.

While almost – almost – coyly acknowledging that there have been “lots of offers”, the smart money would bet on Glover returning to Scotland.

“I have recently visited my Principal at Aberdeen University, Sir Ian Diamond and we talked about whether there would be a role for me returning to Aberdeen. The university were extremely supportive, as I imagine most universities would be, of me coming here and I offered to resign because this had to be a full-time appointment.

“Ian Diamond said that if I wished they would give a leave of absence and that left me free to explore coming back to Aberdeen. We had a very interesting conversation. I’m impressed by how Aberdeen are continuing to grow in impact and stature as a university, and some days it looks very attractive indeed. That would be my first thought, I would see what I could contribute for the university,” she says.

And finally, having worked with both Barroso, a man with enormous influence on a huge political institution who has often (31,300 times according to Google) been labelled ‘unimpressive’, and Alex Salmond, a First Minister with responsibility for a small country but who certainly does not lack confidence in his own ability, how do the two compare?

As always, the key metric for Glover is science. And on this, Salmond gets the better mark: “I would see President Barroso at least once a month. Sometimes we have a heavy cluster because he is very engaged with the Science and Technology Advisory Council. When we have our formal meetings, he always meets with them for a couple of hours to prepare for that, I would see him beforehand. I send him a lot of documents as briefing documents. We would do correspondence if there was any uncertainty.

“There has been decent engagement. Probably in an ideal life, I would have liked more. They are different beasts but in Scotland I had excellent interaction with Alex Salmond and I think the way I worked with the First Minister is that he, I hope and I have every indication that he had a lot of confidence in what I was doing and very happy that I pursued a number of key ideas which I would have discussed with him.

“And then when I needed to see him, he never once did not see me. If I said there was something that would be really useful for us to talk about, I didn’t exploit that, but when I said that, he always made time for me. He gets science.”

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