December 2009

Advice and Dissent

A number of people agreed with that decision. In an opinion piece in The Telegraph on Nov. 7, Alasdair Palmer wrote, “Prof Nutt isn’t a martyr to science who lost his job merely for confronting the government with incontestable facts. He was sacked because, as Mr. Johnson insisted, ‘he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.’” He goes on to say that “Prof Nutt’s views on policy matters… are not straightforward inferences from the scientific facts… The harm that cannabis can cause in teenage brains is a good reason for, as the government says, ‘erring on the side of caution’ and classifying cannabis as a Class B drug, with heavy penalties for those convicted of possession. The science does not force you to that conclusion— but then it does not force you to the conclusion that cannabis should be downgraded to Class C.”Pot leaf

But many scientists were appalled by the government’s actions. Two members of the ACMD resigned in protest, raising the possibility that the committee would no longer have enough expertise to do its job. And, one week after Nutt’s dismissal, more than 20 academics, including Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, sent to the government a set of guidelines that the academics say “would enhance confidence in the scientific advisory system and help government to secure essential advice.” The guidelines assert that “disagreement with government policy and the public articulation and discussion of relevant evidence and issues by members of advisory committees cannot be grounds for criticism or dismissal.” When scientific advice is rejected, they said, the reasons should be described explicitly and publicly.

Ironically, Nutt’s sacking took place just days after the British government had issued a statement about the importance of independence in scientific advice that said, in part, that scientists should not be criticized for publishing scientific papers or making statements as professionals, independent of their role as government advisers. So why was David Nutt sacked, really?

My guess is that it had relatively little to do with the issue of scientific independence and a lot more to do with the peculiar nature of drugs as a political and social lightning rod. Few issues, short of abortion, raise the moral outrage of the Right as reliably as a suggestion that we should go softer on those who use certain drugs. Governments advocate such positions at their peril. Facing a hostile electorate because of the financial crisis, together with a strong challenge from a reinvigorated Conservative Party, the Labour government of Gordon Brown probably felt it could ill afford to be seen as being anything but hard-line on any drug issue at this time. Not firing Nutt, they may have thought, would send a mixed message to the voters about their confidence in their drug policy.

Regardless of the underlying motives, this case should have a powerful resonance in the United States. For eight of the past nine years, the American government deliberately misrepresented and ignored scientific advice whenever that advice contradicted the ideology of those in power. It routinely put poorly qualified scientists and even nonscientists in “scientific” advisory positions, so long as they passed the litmus test of political and religious attitudes. It edited scientific data and conclusions out of reports and persecuted government scientists who questioned its policies. So bad was the situation that, when he was elected, President Barack Obama felt the need to address this problem publicly in both his inaugural address (saying, "We will restore science to its rightful place,") and in a speech he gave before the National Academy of Sciences on April 27 (saying, "[W]e have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas").

Ignoring and marginalizing science has a long, sorry history in the United States. One of the main reasons for the failure to develop a firm policy on the climate crisis can be seen in the persistent tendency of several administrations to find that handful of scientists who disagreed with the majority opinion and only listen to them. Confronted with scientific evidence that one of his cherished beliefs was simply not supported by the facts, President Ronald Reagan would simply dismiss it by saying, "Oh, I don’t think that’s true." The Eisenhower and Truman administrations stocked their scientific advisory boards with physicists who shared their militaristic, Cold War anticommunist philosophy and in some cases persecuted those (J. Robert Oppenheimer, for example) who begged to differ.

The tension between scientific advice and policy advice remains strong. I believe that it is the function of a scientific adviser to any government to provide advice purely on scientific matters. Your job, in other words, is to tell your bosses what the data say. If the data are relatively unambiguous and there is good consensus on their interpretation, that needs to be said. If there are reasonable opposing conclusions that are supported by reliable measurements, it is important to see that those views are aired. But a scientist has to be careful about advocating a particular policy in response to the science. If science can say that there is a probability that a particular policy would have severe negative consequences, it is essential that governments be told that. But in general, policy is a matter not for scientific advisers but for politicians.

Politicians, we are constantly told, acquire and retain power by deceit and salesmanship, and frequently are contemptuous of the people they profess to serve. But, true as that cliché might be (and happily there are some notable exceptions), it is their job to get something done, and frequently getting something done requires making compromises that appall or offend scientists. A good politician usually keeps his or her options open. I agree completely with the guidelines proposed by the 20 academicians in Britain, which state that scientific advisers should not be dismissed for public criticism of policy decisions, but I would issue a caution to those who contemplate doing so.

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