Home Secretary slammed for ecstasy 'meddling'

February 19, 2009

One of Britain's leading scientists has accused the Home Secretary of meddling with academic freedom after she ordered an independent adviser to apologise for an article in a peer-reviewed journal.

Colin Blakemore, former head of the Medical Research Council, leapt to the defence of David Nutt, head of psychopharmacology at the University of Bristol, after Jacqui Smith demanded that he apologise for likening the dangers of ecstasy to the risks of riding a horse.

Professor Blakemore, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford and head of the Food Standards Agency's General Advisory Committee on Science, said Ms Smith's action was "a worrying challenge to academic freedom as well as to evidence-based policy".

He said: "Professor Nutt was phoned by the Home Secretary during his afternoon clinic and asked to apologise for a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. I know that drug policy is a sensitive issue, but does this mean that any researcher who publishes results at odds with government policy might now expect a call from a Cabinet minister demanding an apology? If you strip away the freedom of academics to publish their research, what is left?"

Professor Nutt, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), received Ms Smith's call after writing a tongue-in-cheek editorial in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, criticising the basis of the UK's drugs policy.

He wrote that ecstasy caused fewer deaths than equine addiction syndrome - an addiction to horse-riding - and called for a "more relevant harm assessment process".

Ms Smith told MPs: "I felt his comments went beyond the scientific advice that I expect from him as chair of the ACMD."

Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, implied that Professor Nutt had been speaking out of turn. He said: "The Home Secretary was commenting on him in his role as chair of the ACMD, which is a public appointment and not an academic one."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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