The Home Secretary publically demanded and received an apology from Professor David Nutt, Chair of the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for saying what he believes about the relative risks of ecstasy and horse riding. A few days later Professor Adrian Smith, who has recently moved from academia into government, was also forced to apologise to Secretary of State John Denham for saying what he believes, in a speech about the poor quality of science exams. Unlike Nutt, Smith is now a paid up civil servant as the Director General of Science and Research at the Department for Innovation Universities and Skills and as such not free to speak his mind. However, like Nutt, he was appointed to his post because of a long and distinguished career as a mathematician and academic. What they also have in common is that these retractions were not for racist gaffes or plunging the country into financial chaos – they are apologies demanded by government quite simply because what these experts believe conflicts with government policy.
This is a worrying trend and one that anyone interested in evidence based policy should care about. Surely the whole point of appointing leading scientists to advise or join the government is to access their expertise not stifle it. In her very public castigation of David Nutt Jacqui Smith insisted that his comments (published in a peer reviewed academic journal) were incompatible with his role as an adviser to government. But this is crazy – are scientists to stop publishing in their own field because they are chairing one committee advising government?
This is not to argue that government must always follow the advice of its scientific advisers. Politicians rightly base their decisions on many factors and I have no doubt that when rejecting the ACMD’s advice on the grading of cannabis and ecstasy the Home Secretary had to measure the strong views of police chiefs and the public against the recommendations of her own advisers. I have no objection to that – it’s called democracy and we have the option of voting Jacqui out if we don’t like her decisions. However that does not and should not translate into stopping us hearing what these scientists have to say in the first place.
As someone who cares passionately about the quality of public debate on science what worries me most is that society may lose out on the views and expertise of some of the UK’s leading academics on some of the most important issues of our time. Adrian Smith has promised not to repeat his concerns about the state of science education and it’s hard to see how David Nutt can keep hold of his job if he repeats his comments about the relative risks of ecstasy. At his valedictory lecture the wonderful former Chief Scientific Adviser and acclaimed chemist Professor Sir David King reflected on the trouble he got in with ministers after saying in the US that climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism. His message to all the Scientific Advisers brought in to work for government was to think long and hard before making statements publically that might undermine government policy
Ever since Galileo, scientists have been testing established theories and challenging orthodoxies. A grown up, self confident government would have the courage to let our modern day Galileos do just that...from both inside and outside government. And guess what: we might even get more grown up and informed debates!
Broadcast on Leading Edge, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 5 March 2009