April 2010

Letter For Advice and Dissent

Dear Editor,

PotI would start by saying that “El Presidente’s” messages are one of the reasons I browse ASBMB Today. I not only find myself generally in agreement with the opinions expressed in his messages on various subjects, but I also enjoy his refreshing outspokenness on controversial issues (such as on the financial crisis and big pharma, ASBMB Today, May 2009) and his tendency to tell the truth to power (i.e., his critiques of the former U.S. administration). I was, therefore, surprised to see coyness and a nod about the actualité politique from the United Kingdom— namely the dismissal of the chief of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ASBMB Today, Dec. 2009). This particular case, in my view, is an issue of academic freedom. It ought to be an important freedom, particularly for scientists who advise politicians, and, in my view, distinguishes them from being perceived as politicians.

The purpose of my letter is not to defend David Nutt, who, I am sure, is more than capable of his own defense. I also do not wish to speculate on why the home secretary of the United Kingdom government decided Nutt was surplus to requirement. I am writing because I disagree with the implication of the president’s message that somehow there are clear dividing lines between scientific assessment and policy advice, particularly when the public perception of risk and risk assessment are under consideration.

The reasons given for sacking Nutt are inthe public domain: publication of an academic lecture given to the Center for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College, London, in July 2009. Nutt gave the lecture in his capacity as an expert in the area of drug misuse and harm—  ironically one of the main reasons he was chosen to head the ACMD. According to the now ex-chief of the ACMD, he got approval of both the lecture slides and text from the relevant government department. The lecture was in the public domain in July 2009, and the sacking did not occur until it was published as a briefing pamphlet by the organizers at the CCJS in October 2009 (which, I guess, if it had not been at the center of the sacking, would have been read by fewer readers than those of ASBMB Today).

The transcript, which is not bedtime reading, is evidently meant for connoisseurs and the highly referenced. It appears that the assessment that Nutt had delved into policy and politics rather than sticking to science (a judgment both the home secretary and Petsko seem to arrive at) is the result of the last paragraph of the lecture:

“Another key question we have to address as a society is whether our attitude to drugs is driven because of their harms or are we engaging in a moral debate? One thing this government has done extremely well in the last ten years is to cut away much of the moral argument about drug treatments. They have moved in the direction of improving access to harm-reduction treatments, an approach that, I think, is wholly endorsed by the scientific community and by the medical profession. For reasons that are not clear, the same evidence-based change has not happened in relation to the classification of drugs of misuse. I think it should happen, because, while I’m not a moral philosopher, it seems to me difficult to defend a moral argument in relation to drugs if you don’t apply it to other equally harmful activities.”

In the context of a lecture that purports to identify and compare various risks and harm (including devising a drugs harm ranking), and the audience to which it was delivered, I leave it to the readers of ASBMB Today to decide if the offending paragraph is reason enough to justify having an “agenda,” as Petsko suggests. The debate about risks afflicting modern existence is fraught with irrationality and politics. It could do without sane, rational men advocating for more of its politicization. I would finish by quoting from the condemned man’s lecture: “I think we need to improve the general understanding of relative harms. I think we need to educate people about drug harms in relation to the harms of other activities in life, so that it is possible for them to make sensible decisions about relative harms.”

Aamir Ahmed

University College London

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