Could EU’s top scientist be vaccination’s Advocate-in-Chief?

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

December 12th, 2011

Gary Finnegan

‘Meet Prof Anne Glover, Europe’s first ever Chief Scientist. Appointed by the European Commission, she will provide scientific advice to the European Commission and could have a key role in communicating with the public.’

Anne-GloverSo, as the face of European science, could Prof Glover be asked to address public trust in vaccination?

A molecular and cell biologist, Glover has served as Scotland’s Chief Scientific Advisor since 2006 and arguably has more experience working in the space between politicians and the public than those who appointed her.

It is not yet clear how much independence she will have. The new role, first mooted by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso back in 2009, places the chief scientist in the Bureau of European Policy Advisors (BEPA) – a low-profile panel of experts from whom politicians can take soundings.

However, Prof Glover could opt to build a more public profile, advocating on scientific issues of major import such as energy, food production and public health. The role is hers to shape.

Spokesperson for science

The Chief Scientist could, for example, be the go-to person when there’s a health crisis – like a pandemic or a major measles outbreak – but also serve as a permanent front-person for ongoing communication on scientific issues.

One of the criticisms the European Union faced after the H1N1 pandemic was that citizens were unsure who was in charge. To whom should the media address questions and concerns?

The EU Health Commissioner, the ECDC, WHO Europe, the European Medicines Agency and national health ministers all had a role but there was no individual to deal with issues around risk communication and safety.

If there’s one thing that came through at the recent vaccination policy conference hosted by Fondation Merieux, it was that science needs a face. We trust people more readily than we trust faceless organisations or the data they produce.

We also know that doctors, professors and scientists are held in high esteem by the public – higher than politicians, industry or journalists – but should communicate more (see page 84 of this report) so the Chief Scientific Advisor starts at an advantage not enjoyed by her political masters.

Maintaining a degree of independence from those who appointed her will be paramount if this perception is to endure.

Of course every science-based interest group will want Prof Glover to prioritise their issue but, with measles spreading, drug-resistant TB on the rise, and trust in immunisation in need of repair, there is a good case for putting vaccines high on the list.