I posted a comment about the firing of David Nutt (here) in which I suggested that it was probably justified in the sense that his position was no longer tenable. I have learned a little more since then and it does appear that he was treated very badly by the home secretary, but I don’t think my general view has changed. I think he should have resigned earlier, although forcing the government to fire him has brought the role of science advisors into the spotlight, which is certainly a good thing. The fact that David Nutt is now forming an Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (outside of government) is, however, something I find slightly worrying. It seems incredibly arrogant and the concern I have is that David Nutt’s arrogance will lead to him to do something that will ultimately undermine the position of future government science advisors. I’m sure he must have some enemies who are just waiting for him to fail. I think he should slip quietly into the background for a while and let the process evolve without him. He’s already done his bit by getting fired.
What motivated this post was, however, a comment by Adam Afriyie during Tuesday’s CaSE Science and Engineering Policy Debate to the effect that government ministers should be allowed to fire advisors whenever they like. This has received quite a lot of coverage (here and here) and in general it appears that most are critical of this view. I must admit that although I don’t think much of Adam Afriyie, I tend to agree with him on this. Assuming that he is referring to unpaid advisors, then I see no real reason why ministers shouldn’t be able to get rid of them at will (this may not be entirely relevant to the David Nutt case as – I believe – he was chair of statutory body, rather than simply a science advisor) . The caveat, of course, is that this should be done publicly and ministers who regularly ignore advice or fire advisors for no good reason should pay the ultimate price. We, the electorate, have to be willing to not re-elect people who do not listen to well founded advice and who are willing to fire people whose advice they don’t like. Giving ministers this freedom also means that the process will be more honest and they will be more likely to give away their true views and will give us a chance to judge them accordingly.