Dame Anne Glover

Dame Anne Glover

In search of evidence

Dame Anne Glover served as the first chief scientific advisor to both the Scottish Government and the president of the European Commission. She shares her views on Brexit, spin-outs and entrepreneurship with Peter Ranscombe.

First there was Brexit. Then there was Trump. And then, to cap it all off, the Oxford English Dictionary declared its “Word of the Year 2016” to be “post-truth”: an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Dame Anne Glover isn’t a fan of the new word though. “Call a lie, a lie,” she says with a shake of her head. “I’m getting increasingly angry about this post-truth thing because that’s a very sanitised phrase, saying, ‘post-truth’. People are lying.

“I’ve said to fellow scientists that they need to start behaving badly. Call a lie, a lie. Because there’s a taboo about this, where people ask, ‘Are you sure about your facts there?’.

“In the House of Commons, you can’t call somebody a liar. Perhaps that’s because it’s such a shocking thing to call someone. But when someone is clearly lying, I wouldn’t say, ‘Oh you’re going a bit into the post-truth there’, I’d say ‘You’re lying, there’s no evidence to support what you’re saying’.

“People understand what a liar is, whereas this ‘post-truth’ thing sounds very sanitised. It’s like the difference between saying to someone ‘You’re very well-rounded’ or ‘You’re obese’. You’re not allowed to call people ‘fat’ because it’s so shocking. And that maybe makes it acceptable for people.

“Words are very powerful indeed and I think we have to be a little more straightforward in our use of language. When people are lying, and we know they’re lying, let’s ask them for the evidence. Because otherwise, we always pat ourselves on the back and say, we’ve got a great democracy here, in the UK. I’m not so sure anymore.”

Lies aren’t the only topic that has angered Glover. The way in which politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have undermined evidence has also struck at the very heart of the scientist’s beliefs.

“Michael Gove said that people in this country have had enough of experts,” she says. “That was a chilling thing for somebody to say because I think it was deliberately dishonest.

“I imagine that, if Michael Gove had a brain tumour, he’d want a neurosurgeon to treat him, and not a theatre director or clothes salesman. I think his comment was designed to try and undermine people’s openness to listening to what experts had to say. People with knowledge, people who had depth of experience.

“Jacob Rees-Mogg came out with a very similar phrase later in the year on Newsnight – he said ‘Experts, soothsayers, astrologers are all in much the same category’. No, they’re not. “Again, a quite cynical – in my view – attempt to try and undermine people’s regard or at least willingness to have an open mind as to what a specialist or an expert might say.”

Glover knows the importance of clear communication and the need to present evidence more than most. She served as Scotland’s first chief scientific advisor between 2006 and 2011 and then fulfilled the same role to the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, from 2012 until 2014.

She now serves as vice-principal for external affairs and dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen, where she also holds a personal chair as professor of molecular and cell biology. She became a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire in the new year’s honours list in 2015 for her services to science and she also sits on the boards of Scottish Enterprise and the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, as well as chairing the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.

Dame Anne GloverHer close links with the European Union (EU) made last year’s Brexit vote a particularly bitter blow for Glover. “Before I went to work in Brussels, I would have voted to remain – after working for the commission for three years, if I’d been given ten votes then I would have used them all to vote remain,” she says. “When I came home every two or three weeks to the UK I realised just how little news about the good things the EU was doing was getting reported back here. The press blamed the EU for blocking the UK, but often it was the UK using its veto to block the EU – people ask why banks aren’t more heavily regulated and it’s because of the UK, for example.

“It was a real eye opener. The whole time I was there, it was clear the UK was not really a very good member state. We were always carping and wanting special treatment, even though we were one of the richest. We were always going cap in hand. In a way, it was a bit embarrassing.”

A year on from the Brexit vote and now that Article 50 has been triggered, Glover is concerned about the impacts on the UK.

“If you look at the UK’s contribution to the EU as a whole then we contribute more than we get back in areas such as social inclusion, because we’re a richer country,” she explains. “Yet when you look at our contribution to Horizon 2020, the EU’s science funding programme, then we get back a lot more than we contribute. After the whole Brexit campaign was framed around having more money to invest in the health service then it makes it difficult to articulate the case for investing more in science, even though that would boost the health of the nation in the long-term.

“But what’s even more important than the money is the access that the Horizon 2020 structure gives us to seamless partnerships, not just with collaborators in the EU but also in the United States or countries like Israel. Post Brexit, if I put forward grant applications to collaborate with scientists in the US then there’s the risk that they or me or both may be rejected – with Horizon 2020, there was a framework in place and a much greater chance of getting funding.

“The other key issue is attracting talented scientists – around 20% of our students are from the EU and about 40% of our staff come from outside the UK. If I was one of those scientists then would I come to a country that’s now seen as being xenophobic, a bit racist, where I might feel uncomfortable that me, my partner and my kids might be somehow picked upon if we’ve got a foreign accent?

“Even if those things didn’t happen, it’s people’s perception. And, if I’ve got the choice of going anywhere in the world, why would I come here? Why would I subject my family to that, or myself?

“The UK will still have great facilities and infrastructure, but it won’t have the best talent – and you need all three to be successful. It won’t happen overnight, but in five or ten years after Brexit, we’ll see the effect.”

Having worked under the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition and then Scottish National Party (SNP) minority and majority governments, one of Glover’s proudest moments came when she broke down UK data and found that the impact of the research done in Scotland relative to its gross domestic product (GDP) was number one in the world.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” admits Glover. “I’d been looking for weaknesses, which could spark discussions about where we needed to invest and what we could do better.

“I took the data and showed it to First Minister Alex Salmond and he said ‘What?’. It was totally unexpected. “Yet the statistic that always got quoted afterwards was that, excluding the adjustment for GDP, the impact of Scotland’s research was the second highest in the world, after Switzerland. It was almost like, people are going to think this is too good to be true, so let’s go for second not for first.”

She feels her other achievement with the Scottish Government was to stimulate more conversations about science among politicians and civil servants. “Evidence-based policy making – that became a mantra,” she says.

While evidence is a key factor for any scientist, Glover recognises that it cannot be the only consideration when deciding public policy. “I was on a working group that was convened by the Royal Society in London on the detection and decontamination of chemical and biological weapons,” she explains. “We took evidence from a very wide range of people – the security services, but also scientists – talking about different biological or chemical agents that might be released during an attack. We ran various scenarios and one of them looked at a white powder being released in the London Underground.

“All the evidence said, unequivocally, that the way to minimise any risk to the population if that happens is seal off the tube. If there are people down there, what you’re saying is, that it’s unfortunate, but that’s what the evidence tells you.

“So, if you had purely evidenced-based policy then that would have been your policy. But that isn’t our policy, because we’re human, and we find that unacceptable. What’s not legitimate is where you have evidence and the policy completely ignores the evidence and you’re not transparent about it.”

Looking for evidence has been at the very heart of Glover’s career. Born in Arbroath, she was educated at the High School of Dundee before gaining a degree in biochemistry from the University of Edinburgh and a doctorate from the University of Cambridge.

“I think that everybody’s born a scientist because everybody is incredibly curious and they’re interested about their environment and how things work and how things happen,” she explains. “I never grew out of that, I just remained insatiably curious, and still am.

“You might think that’s a nosy trait, but I don’t think I’m a nosy person. I’m just curious.” That curiosity not only led Glover into a career in science but also to co-found a spin-out company from the University of Aberdeen. Ian George, her partner of 40 years and now her husband, worked with local councils to help them develop industrial property and suggested using her research to diagnose the contaminants on brownfield sites and suggest remedies.

Excited at the prospect, Glover and her fellow academics – helped again by George – raised business angel funding and launched Remedios in 1999. The company is still going strong today after being bought by ESH Group in 2012.

“It was a really interesting experience,” Glover remembers. “We were an odd company because we had a product from day one, which is unusual for biotech spin-outs.

“But I didn’t want to be a service company. I wanted to make money so we could invest in developing the technology and it could be used in other areas. The angel investors weren’t so keen on that perhaps because they were from the property world.

“Would I do it again? No. Why not? Because I’m not good at selling. I find it difficult to go out and tell you why you should buy that bag, and not that bag. I think it’s up to you, you’ll look at the evidence.

“I was keen on explaining to people how the technology worked and why it would give them an advantage, but then I’d leave it up to them to decide for themselves. But that’s not how things are sold in business.

“I was rather naïve. But, as I say, I really did enjoy the experience. And ironically, I know if I did it again, I’d make a much better job of it.

“I’m a real fan of serial entrepreneurship because every time you do it, you do it better. We were lucky because we didn’t fail first time around, which is what a large proportion of people do.

“As a society, we’re rather unforgiving about failure. And it’s a real pity because, in a way, I’d put my money on the failures because now they really know what works and what doesn’t work, so unless they’re really daft, they won’t make the same mistake twice.”