The government has just fired David Nutt, chairman of the advisory panel on the Misuse of Drugs. The idea that a science advisor can be fired because they say something that the government doesn’t like is completely objectionable. Having read some of the details about this particular situation, however, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. My wife also listened to him on BBC Radio 4 and thought he sounded like a bit of a prat, which may have influenced my view somewhat.
In general I think it’s very important that science advisors can carry out their research and publish their research findings without being influenced by their role as a science advisor. They should also be able to give their advice based on scientific evidence and not have to worry about what the government wants to hear. The government, however, also has the right to make a decision that appears to go against this advice if they believe that other factors outweigh the scientific evidence. The scientific results may be technically correct, but can’t really include all possible factors. It may be strictly correct that LSD is less likely to do lasting damage than alcohol, but I suspect that the social use of LSD would be very different to social drinking. A society in which LSD use was common would probably be very different to a society in which alcohol use is common – although this isn’t to say that we don’t currently have a real problem with alcohol abuse. I’m also not suggesting in any way that this is what David Nutt was proposing – I’m just using this as a possible example.
I also believe that science advisors should generally stay out of the political debate. In a sense their published work could become part of the debate as it could be used by others, but as soon as a science advisor starts campaigning publicly for or against something, their objectivity is questionable. If a science advisor feels strongly that a particular government decision is wrong, they should be willing to resign their position in order to campaign against the decision. I haven’t read an awful lot about the David Nutt case but, having read some, my gut feeling is that he was crossing some kind of line and that he was no longer really able to give objective advice.
The particular case that seemed to cause all the problems was the decision by the government to reclassify cannabis as a class B drug rather than leaving it as a class C drug as advised by the committee. Personally I believe that the government is wrong and that the decision was probably made for political gain rather than because they truly believe that society would be better off if cannabis is reclassified. Even so, if David Nutt believed this to be wrong and wanted to make some kind of public stance, then I think he should have resigned before he was pushed. I haven’t really read enough to know if he was making an explicit public stance or if it happened without much direct influence from him. Either way, his position as a scientific advisor was probably compromised. On the other hand, I also hope that the backlash following his firing will cause the government to think twice before ignoring scientific advise – although maybe I’m expecting a bit too much here.