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Humanists in Profile: Professor Dame Anne Glover

By John Coss, Vice Chair of Stockport Humanists

Continuing our series of profiles of humanists who are not as widely known as they should be, including distinguished men and women not generally known to be humanists.

Anne Glover (1956-) is a Scottish molecular biologist. She was Professor of Molecular biology and Cell biology at the University of Aberdeen before being named Vice Principal for External Affairs and Dean for Europe. From 2006 to 2011, she was the first Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland, and from 2012 to 2014 she was the first (and so far the only) Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, where she was a strong advocate for innovation in Europe, for example at an Innovation Convention in 2014. She was President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 2018 to 2021, and is currently a member of the Principal’s senior advisory team at the University of Strathclyde. She is also chair of the Glasgow-based Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre. She became a Dame in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours, for services to science.

Professor Dame Anne Glover

Glover is a Patron of Humanists UK and she gave the inaugural Rosalind Franklin lecture in 2016 on Why Evidence Really Matters. In 2014, she was the guest of Jim Al-Khalili on The Life Scientific. And she was one of the keynote speakers at the 2022 International Humanist Conference in Glasgow. She is a strong supporter of genetically modified food and was involved in controversies about its safety while Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission.

Glover advocates greater participation of women in science and related fields. While President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, she organised Women in Science in Scotland, an exhibition celebrating some of Scotland’s finest women scientists. Here she is talking about her own experience. She also participated in an interesting panel discussion on Women in Science – changed times? where the speakers came from different generations and brought out how much things have changed, as well as the scope for further improvement, including in other aspects of diversity. And in her Rosalind Franklin lecture, which was entertaining as well as instructive, she caused some amusement by a slide displaying parts of the Good Wife’s Guide from Housekeeping Monthly 1955 (note: there are doubts about its authenticity).

She gained valuable experience in molecular genetics from studying the genome of slime mould and went on to develop DNA sequencing techniques, leading to genetically engineering microorganisms to make them environmental biosensors. Initially, this was aimed at tracking the survival of genetically modified organisms released into the environment, for which a way of spotting when a modified gene was expressed was needed. She hit upon the idea of modifying it so that it would glow in the dark when active. She later developed the technique so that this 'bioluminescence' occurred in response to changes in the environment, such as the presence of certain toxic compounds. This led to setting up Remedios Ltd, an innovative spin-off from the University of Aberdeen to market the technology.

Glover is enthusiastic about her current role as chair of the Glasgow-based Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre, which has been tasked with growing Scotland’s industrial biotechnology sector into a £900m industry by 2025. To achieve this, it helps join the dots between industry, education and government, and offers funding, scale-up facilities and talent development resources to companies operating in the sector.

Anne Glover on Star Trek...

  • "As a child, I used to sit down every week and watch Star Trek, with all its iPads, body scanners, needle-less injections, hands free communication, virtual reality and teleporters; and it seemed like a world of wonder and possibility. It’s astonishing to think that all of this is now a reality, even the teleporter! We’ve not yet managed to teleport a person, but we have managed to transport a photon from here to the Gobi Desert and that’s a start."

On getting to another planet...

  • "If we ever get to a safer, sustainable planet it will be because of science, engineering, technology and the social sciences, not because of Shakespeare’s literature. I still want that, but science is culture too and it’s one of the most creative things you can do with your life."

On women in science and scientific knowledge...

  • "Be bold and creative and communicate the knowledge you generate. If you don’t, it’s as if you never did it."

  • "There are lots of excellent women out there and we are simply not using them. We’ll never succeed as an economy unless we do."

  • "The knowledge that you generate (as a scientist) makes a difference to people, and whether it’s providing better health care, or looking after our planet in a more sustainable way, or looking at alternative production of energy, smart computing, you name it – that is what science, engineering and technology delivers, and there is nothing more exciting than being part of that."

On the trans debate...

  • "I’m not gender critical, I’m a sex realist . . . and there are only two sexes – that sticks with us and predisposes us to certain diseases. A transwoman is different because she was born sexually as a man – it’s the denial of that that makes me concerned. It doesn’t concern me that transwomen and transmen want to have their rights verified – that’s completely valid – but the denial of basic biology and the psychology of women, particularly those that have gone through trauma, makes no sense to me."

On GM foods

  • "The point about GM is that no other range of products or foodstuffs has been so thoroughly researched, with not one single piece of evidence emerging that would show GM as being more risk than conventional plant breeding methods."

  • "I think we need to be more aggressive when people say there is not enough evidence to support GM. People need to be more transparent and say why they are rejecting the evidence. I have a clear scientific view on GM and have used the technology in my own research work."


Note 1: The Anne Glover who is the subject of this profile should not be confused with the Anne Glover who is a venture capitalist and a Non-Executive Director in the Court of Directors of the Bank of England.

Note 2: Re The Life Scientific – Anne Glover episode

The BBC is aware of a bug that happens sometimes on Sounds when you try and play again something you have listened to before. When I first tried to listen to Anne Glover again, it skipped ahead immediately and played the Jacqueline McGlade episode. They could not give me a time frame for when this bug will be fixed but, hopefully, it will not take too long. In the meantime, if you encounter the problem, there is a workaround that overcomes it. If it skips ahead to the next episode, click the small cog in the bottom right of the play screen and disable autoplay, then press the button on the left of the play controls, just beside the backwards 20 seconds button. This will skip you back an episode. With autoplay off, it will stay on this episode and then just hit play and it should work. (With autoplay still enabled, it just skips ahead again.)

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