Government seeks to patch up relations with scientists

November 12, 2009

Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, has moved to heal a rift between the Government and the science community following the sacking of an independent drugs adviser.

David Nutt was dismissed as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, on 30 October after questioning government policy.

Last week, a group of 28 senior scientists signed a set of principles "for the treatment of independent scientific advice", which they are calling on the Government to agree.

Lord Drayson said the blueprint contained "a number of very good ideas". "What I want to do between now and Christmas is work with the signatories of the principles and the scientific adviser network to make sure that we come up with a clear set of ground rules," he said.

The principles cover "academic freedom", "independence of operation" of independent scientific advisory committees and "proper consideration of advice".

Notably absent from the signatories, however, is Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser. He told Times Higher Education he had declined to sign on the grounds that one of the tenets put forward - that when expert scientific advice is rejected "the reasons should be described explicitly and publicly" - could deter the Government from drawing on scientific expertise in future.

Sir David argued that while it was important for scientific advisers to put their views into the public domain, they should not be "explicitly critical of ministers" for not taking advice. "Scientists need to recognise - and this is also not stated in the document - that ministers are the representatives of the public," he said. "They have been elected, we have not."

Two members of the ACMD resigned following Professor Nutt's sacking, and the remaining members were due to meet Mr Johnson to discuss their position this week.

Opinion, p24

'Blue Skies Ahead: The prospects for UK Science', 30 November, 7pm. The debate will be webcast on this website.

Update 12/11/2009

Three more members of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) resigned following a crunch meeting with Alan Johnson, Home Secretary, on 10 November.

Five members of the 31-strong committee have now quit over concerns about the sacking of David Nutt and its implications for the independence of scientific advisers.

The three to resign this week are: John Marsden, a research psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry; Simon Campbell, a synthetic organic chemist and fellow of the Royal Society; and Ian Ragan, director of a consultancy for the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, CIR Consulting Ltd.

All three are reported to have argued for Professor Nutt’s reinstatement.

Evan Harris MP, the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, said the resignations “represent a deepening in the crisis of confidence of scientists in the Government”.

In a joint statement issued on 11 November, Mr Johnson and the ACMD said the Government’s chief scientific adviser John Beddington had been asked to investigate the issues surrounding scientists’ freedom to criticise government policy and to report his findings to the Prime Minister by Christmas.

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