December 2009

Advice and Dissent

Scientific advisers should be free to air their views— and not just on matters of science. But they need to understand the consequences. Politicians are naturally suspicious of anyone with an agenda, and, not being reluctant to spin the facts if it serves their purpose, they are quick to believe that others will do so as well. If scientific advisers seem to be advocating particular policies, their scientific objectivity will come into question, regardless of the solidity of their conclusions. David Nutt was right to criticize a policy decision that he felt went against the science. But it led to his being removed from a position where he might have been able to influence such policies in the future. If we want governments to learn to trust scientific advice, we have to ensure that such advice is seen to be objective, as well as actually being so. In his position, would I have done what Nutt did? Probably, but with one significant difference: I would have resigned before going public with my criticism, thereby establishing the separation between my duties as a scientific adviser and my duty as a concerned scientist to speak out about a flawed policy. I also think the Labour government overreacted and in so doing turned a debate about drug safety into one about the independence of scientific advice and the limits of dissent. Instead of looking tough on drugs, they came across as being afraid of the truth.

Yet, we cannot give the advice that governments need to hear if we are seen as just another political faction with its own (usually liberal) agenda. The great strength of science is that its conclusions are evidence-based. Scientific advice, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion. If we seem to stray from that, we lose. 

*This article originally appeared in Genome Biology (2009) 10, 113 and was reprinted with permission from BioMed Central.

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