02 November 2009

Row Over UK Science Advice After Advisor Sacked

UPDATE: More details on this episode here at the Times.

The UK Government has fired the chairman of a scientific advisory committee for advancing views that it finds uncomfortable with respect to current policy. According to the BBC:

Colleagues of the government drugs adviser sacked by [Home Secretary] Alan Johnson say they have "serious concerns" about his decision and whether they can continue.

Two drugs advisory panel members quit in protest when Prof David Nutt was fired for comments on cannabis policy.

The home secretary faces MPs' questions about Prof Nutt, who, he says, crossed a line between advice and campaigning.

Other members have asked to meet Mr Johnson and some question whether they can continue in "good conscience".

Prof Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was sacked on Friday after using a lecture to say that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco
Mark Easton of the BBC has a nice overview:
Far from using independent experts to "lend credibility to public pronouncements about risk" (in the ACMD's case, the risk from illegal drugs), the home secretary wants them to stay silent because "it is important that the government's messages on drugs are clear and as an adviser you do nothing to undermine public understanding of them". The two resignations today suggest Professor Nutt's sacking may prove to be an important moment in the relationship between government and the experts who advise it.
He provides an image of the letter to Prof. Nutt announcing his termination, reproduced below.


  1. Yes - looks as though 'advisors' are there to provide support for Govt policy/agendas - not to provide objective advice based on actual science. Same goes for climate 'advisors.'

  2. "Prof Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was sacked on Friday after using a lecture to say that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco"

    Good heavens! One might as well fire someone for saying the sun rises in the east. Simply divide the death rate by the rate of use, using whatever metric you like for drug use. But make sure you take the ratio this way; reverse numerator and denominator, and you might find cannabis gives you a computational error.

  3. It's lengthy, but I've described why I think both sides screwed up here, and why the sacking might be justified. The case can be made that Professor Nutt was conducting some stealth advocacy, and that U.K. media disclosure recommendations for advisory bodies don't do enough to eliminate the appearance of conflict of interest.

  4. Thank you, David.. that was a very thorough discussion of this topic and I agree with you that the boundary of science and policy in practice is worthy of exploration.

    My question is why is there such a ruckus about scientists? I would think we would be concerned about any employee who voices their opinions in public not represented as a government position who had action taken against them.

    What people seem to imply is that if a person is a scientist, somehow everything they say is "science" even opinions about good policies. If scientific knowledge claims deserve special deference then I think we need to be more specific about what we mean by a "scientific" claim as opposed to an opinion of a scientist.

  5. The truth is that drug policy is driven more by international treaties and co-ordination than either science or national public opinion.

    Britain recently announced the banning of two very popular drug substitutes bzp(ecstasy) and jwh018(cannabis). It is one of the very last countries to do so and both are still on sale in the UK. The government seems to be leaving it as long as it can and 'next year sometime' is the latest date for the banning.

    Professor Nutt I'm sure understands the above quite well but decided to twist the government's arm, particularly over ecstasy.

    The re-classification of cannabis has absolutely no practical, day to day effect for users. It was probably a publicity stunt to appease the readers of certain right wing newspapers as well as a genuine concern for its increasing strength.

    In general (it seems to me that), scientists are very much the tools of politicians. This one wasn't financially dependent on his position so he was able to say what he felt and took the consequences.

  6. I am a scientist, and I am no fan of the Labour government. But on this issue Alan Johnson was right, Nutt had overstepped his role. David's blog is worth reading on this.
    Johnson wrote to the Guardian yesterday, saying
    "...He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy. This principle is well understood and long established.

    As for his comments about horse riding being more dangerous than ecstasy, which you quote with such reverence, it is of course a political rather than a scientific point. There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction."

  7. My first reaction to this story was a knee-jerk reaction that the government were once again indulging in policy-based evidence gathering (to steal someone else's joke). But thinking about it it further, I'm not sure Professor Nutt is really in the right here.

    "Collective responsibility" is a common phrase in British politics. While it's normally used to describe a doctrine of cabinet government, it really applies to almost any decision-making process. You can't expect to be an insider taking part in the process and still have absolute freedom to criticise and advocate policy in public. The one role will always conflict with the other.

  8. Sharon asks why the ruckus about scientists. I think part of the explanation is that it is scientists making a lot of the ruckus, and a British press that is traditionally more adversarial to the government that the U.S. press is running with it. The complainants appear to believe that either Nutt is right on the 'scientific' claim that the policy framework is flawed and therefore should not have been sanctioned, or that Nutt was not speaking in any capacity with respect to his Advisory Council position and therefore could not have been undercutting the value of the advice presented by that Council.

    I tried to make the point in the post I linked to above that current U.K. guidance to advisory councils does not do enough to separate what a scientist (or citizen) does as a private individual from what they do as part (or chair) of an advisory body. Add to this lack of separation the common (erroneous) habit of assuming that all declarations from scientists have the authority of science behind them, and the challenge of separating opinion from factual conclusion becomes harder. I think the difficulty of doing this separation contributes to the perception problem regarding Nutt and supports a stronger policy on separation of personal and official utterances.

    There is a separate issue about whether Nutt's risk modeling and harm comparisons accurately reflect societal considerations of harm and risk, which aren't necessarily scientific. Not all consequences of harms are equivalent, or considered equivalent, and while falling off a horse may have more significant harm to an individual than addiction to particular drugs, society may choose to protect against one set of harms and consequences more than another for reasons that may not be considered 'rational' (arguably a word used to borrow the power of science that really reflects utilitarian logic).

  9. Thanks David. First class analysis.

    One factor is the anti drug propaganda over the years will take time to fade from the public consciousness.

  10. I wonder why no one has picked up on Alan Johnson's remarkt that "I cannot have public confusion" -- which exemplifies his vision of heavy handed government. As if "public confusion" could be stopped by government telling their advisors to shut up.

    It is worth reading a comment in today's Guardian, by their commentator Simon Jenkins who was involved in previous advisory activities. He writes:
    "Researching drug use is pointless since policy on the subject has nothing to do with evidence, only emotion. It has to do with fear of the unknown, the taboo of of other people's escapist narcotics (or worse, those of one's children). Politicians could not care less what experts say... they care only for the rightwing press, whose editors suffer a similar taboo... Politicians can stand the pressure of corpses piling up in Helmand, but one corpse at a rave would be too much for their consciences."

    Roger, is this not a classic case of abortion politics masquerading as tornado politics?