When science and politics collide – the fallout from the Nutt affair

The vast majority of scientists in this country undertake research that is funded by the tax payer and as such, they are often required to prepare reports and give advice to government departments and ministers.

david nutt
Professor David Nutt

The pursuit of evidence-based policy in government is essential and something that should be encouraged. But what happens when the views of scientists in prominent roles, who are relied on to gather that evidence, differ from the policy line of the government? Not much – unless the scientist(s) decide to make their views public. Then all hell breaks loose.

We are currently witnessing the fallout of such actions both in the United Kingdom and in Australia. On Friday, news broke of the sacking of Professor David Nutt, the head of the UK Government’s independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Professor Nutt was asked to step down by Home Secretary Alan Johnson for allegedly “crossing the line” in his role as senior adviser on drug policy and speaking out against government policy on drugs. According to the BBC, Nutt used a lecture to explain his belief that cannabis is less harmful than tobacco and alcohol.

The home secretary took a dim view of that, telling the UK media that Professor Nutt “cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy”. But scientists have erupted in protest at the sacking, outraged by what they see as a move to persecute Nutt for airing his views, views he believes are based on solid scientific evidence. Nutt says the attitude of home secretaries to the coucil has changed in recent years to the extent that they view it as a “rubber stamp” for drug control policies they wish to implement.

In the wake of Nutt’s departure, two of his colleagues on the council have resigned in protest and Nutt himself has been incredibly vocal, claiming his sacking “has cast a huge shadow over the relationship of science to policy”.

The Science Media Centre in London gathered reaction from scientists to the sacking and common to their responses are expressions of shock and dismay at the decision.

This from Dr Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Oxford and Former Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council:

“The Government cannot expect the experts who serve on its independent committees not to voice their concern if the advice they give is rejected even before it is published. I worry that the dismissal of Prof Nutt will discourage academic and clinical experts from offering their knowledge and time to help the Government in the future.”

And from Maurice R. Elphick, Professor of Animal Physiology & Neuroscience at Queen Mary, University of London:

“If politicians want to know whether changing the classification of a drug is likely to increase or decrease the incidence of use of that drug they should seek the advice of a sociologist. If, however, politicians really do want to have an objective assessment of the relative risks to health of different recreational drugs, then they should listen to what the medical scientist has to say, not sack him.”

Lord Winston has also weighed in on the Nutt sacking, criticising Prime Minister Gordon Brown for upgrading cannabis to class B drug status against the advice of the council

He told the Daily Mail: “When Gordon Brown says that cannabis is a ‘lethal drug’, when it clearly isn’t, young people are not going to pay him any notice. You don’t reduce drug harm by lying.”

There’s a good column on the whole affair by the BBC’s Mark Easton. Another one by the Time’s science editor Mark Henderson contains a highly sensible suggestion:

“Departmental chief scientists, too, should be required to report and explain all instances where expert advice has been sought but not followed. Both measures would make ministers think twice before commissioning opinions they have no intention of heeding and then shooting the messenger.”

The departure of Nutt has been widely criticised and could have serious implications for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs if others among its 28 members feel their independent position has been compromised by it. What then would become of the relationship between scientists and the UK Government?

Did the CSIRO gag its scientist?

Meanwhile closer to home, comes another accusation of political pressure being applied to silence the opinions of scientists because it goes against favoured government policy. Australia’s CSIRO is denying claims it censored ecological economist Dr Clive Spash because he wrote a paper criticising the proposed emissions trading scheme and proposed alternatives that were not favoured by the government.

Spash told a conference in Darwin last week that the CSIRO had blocked his paper being published in the journal New Political Economy, writing to the editors to withdraw it. Unlike Nutt, Dr Spash seems to have gone to ground. The CSIRO has defended its actions, saying its policy is not to let scientists comment on matters of government or opposition policy.

It would seem both the Australian and UK governments have some serious work to do to reassure their citizens that they are taking scientific advice seriously and are willing to allow their scientists to publicly voice their views.


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