Here is a quick trivia question: what do Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel have in common?
Well quite a lot of course: first female leaders of their respective countries; long serving; admired if controversial…. But I had in mind something in particular: they are both the first leaders of their countries to be science graduates, Thatcher in chemistry and Merkel in physical chemistry. After her graduation, Thatcher worked in the food industry – believe it or not, some credit the Iron Lady with the invention of soft scoop ice cream. Merkel researched particle collision, perhaps a more obvious preparation for politics.
Scientist leaders are the exception rather than the norm. Macron is a philosophy graduate. Obama is a lawyer, as are Juncker, Putin, and many others. Trump studied economics (not really a science, and maybe he skipped the trade module). Only two EU Commissioners have pure science degrees*. Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, studied painting. Theresa May follows the trend of female scientist leaders: she has a degree in geography, which will no doubt come in handy in the search for countries with which post Brexit UK can do trade deals.
There are few scientist leaders, but science underlies whole areas of policy and law making, particularly in the EU, with its regulatory emphasis on standards, harmonisation, and environmental and consumer protection. No politicians, whose careers and roles are transient, can master more than general principles, especially given that so few of them have a scientific background to begin with. They need advice from experts.
Many of us are unaware of the huge role in our society of expert advice. I bet you cannot name the members of the European Central Bank’s Governing Council, which, if you have a mortgage in the Eurozone, ultimately determines how much you pay. I bet you cannot name a single member of the CHMP committee of the European Medicines Agency, which advises on which drugs get a licence in Europe. And you may not even have heard of the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), whose opinions profoundly influence the formulation of cosmetic products.
The SCCS is a slightly anomalous institution. It is of huge significance for our industry, but it works in relative obscurity. Not all EU policy makers, let alone citizens, know of its work, its mission or even its existence. Unlike the European Agencies (such as EMA, ECHA and EFSA), Member States don’t battle for the right to host it - it works in unglamorous Luxembourg. Its members are academic scientist volunteers (expenses only), and it is overstretched.
But it does good and important work. The excellent safety record of cosmetics and personal care products in Europe is attributable to the responsible approach of the industry under our in-market control system, backed up by the public resource which is the SCCS. If there is doubt about the safety of an ingredient, or its safe concentration, the SCCS can be referred to for an opinion. The Commission follows the SCCS opinion in adjusting the rules applicable to cosmetic ingredients.
There is no EU Cosmetics Agency, but for a flagship European industry like ours, the scientific basis of EU policy making must be properly equipped for the challenge. Here, to be fair, there is room for improvement. The Committee needs more resources. And while of course the need for SCCS independence is undisputed, we would like more opportunities for scientific dialogue with the Committee, both generally, and on specific ingredients. This kind of dialogue is the norm in agencies such as the EMA. The fear expressed by some of ‘capture’ of agencies and committees by industry if it gets too close is based on a caricature of how scientists really interact. Scientists tend to speak the same language and observe the same standards. Mutual learning is in the public interest. There is progress in this respect - some members of the SCCS along with other Regulators and EU officials recently joined a Cosmetics Europe science workshop designed to improve dialogue and exchange information – we hope to build on this with more workshops in the future.
Also, we would like the SCCS to continue to move towards accepting the use of more alternative testing methods (alternatives to animal testing that is). Again, there are some positive signs in this direction. Next year SCCS will revise its Notes for Guidance (its scientific operating manual) and is reaching out to stakeholders including Cosmetics Europe (which oversees a substantial alternatives research programme**) to help advance the process of accepting new methods. This kind of exchange can only boost SCCS’s pioneering role in adopting novel approaches to testing. Here, as elsewhere in cosmetics, the EU is leading the way.
Many argue that in the so-called post truth age, the authority of science is under threat. Public understanding and respect for science is perhaps lower than it has been for decades. Anti-scientific ideas about issues such as climate change or vaccination are promoted by some elected politicians. But it remains crucial that objective and evidential benchmarks govern our policy. The alternative is less effective, disproportionate, even dangerous policies. At worst we will return to irrationalism and superstition. We may not really need scientist leaders, but we need science more than ever.
*It’s five if you include dentistry and engineering. But I am not accepting Political Science.
** For more details see www.lrsscosmeticseurope.eu