The evidence in favour of Prof Nutt- Financial Times Editorial

The UK government published a policy document committing itself to independent scientific advice in all departments, with an introduction by the prime minister proclaiming the “international respect” earned by the UK for “its thorough and professional approach to the use of evidence”. Only two days later Alan Johnson, home secretary, put that respect in jeopardy with an act of political clumsiness.

He sacked Professor David Nutt, a renowned neuropharmacologist, as chairman of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for insisting publicly that last year’s upgrade of cannabis to a Class B drug was not justified by the evidence. 

Two members of the council quit immediately in protest, more are threatening to follow – and the great and good of British science have lined up to attack the home secretary.

If Mr Johnson had thought through the consequences of his action, he would surely have consulted Lord Drayson, the science minister, and John Beddington, government chief scientist. They would have warned him of the outcry and dismay that Prof Nutt’s dismissal would cause.

At stake is not just the future of the ACMD, an important body that has helped to formulate drugs policy for more than 30 years, but as many as 80 other scientific councils and committees across government. These advise on everything from food and nutrition to climate change, and they depend on the unpaid part-time service of hundreds of scientists (mainly working in universities because industry researchers are often ignored for having alleged conflicts of interest). 

The volunteers may turn away from the system if they cannot express contrary views in public or if they see advice being rejected without good reason or even courtesy. Across the Atlantic, that sort of treatment gave George W. Bush’s administration a bad reputation with US scientists.

Indeed the row has implications beyond what most people would think of as science. Ultimately it is about the relationship between evidence and policy. 

Democratic governments always say they want to make “evidence-based policy”. The danger is that, when this does not suit them, they search for “policy-based evidence” – in other words picking out what supports their planned course of action and rejecting what does not. Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” are a prime example.

Of course scientific advice is not sacrosanct. Governments have the right to over-ride the evidence for broader policy reasons – but only if they do so openly and without gagging their advisers.

Mr Johnson is unlikely to pay a high political price for the Nutt affair, because the Conservative opposition, to its shame, supports the professor’s sacking. Chris Grayling, shadow home secretary, wants to outdo Mr Johnson in his hard line on illegal drugs, whatever the evidence. Only the Liberal Democrats are prepared to take a broader (and wiser) view of the need to encourage experts to give governments independent advice.


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