Outrage over drug adviser's dismissal

Scientists ponder their next move in light of David Nutt's sacking by Home Office. Zoë Corbyn writes

November 5, 2009

Academics have rounded on the Government over the treatment of David Nutt, the head of the independent expert body that advises it on drug-related issues, who was sacked by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, after criticising Labour's drugs policies.

As Times Higher Education went to press, two members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) had resigned in protest, with the remaining 28 members due to meet on 10 November to discuss whether to take further action. The Government has also ordered an inquiry into the future operation of the ACMD, and Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, is reported to have written to Number 10 saying that he is "appalled" by the decision.

Professor Nutt told Times Higher Education that Mr Johnson had set a dangerous precedent that called into question the status of independent scientific advisers. "This is an independent committee where every member can be sacked at the whim of the Home Secretary," he said. "What kind of independence is that?"

The sacking has provoked a barrage of criticism from the science community. Among those to leap to the defence of the principle of "unfettered advice without the fear of reprisal" were Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham University and chair of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, and Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust.

In February, Professor Nutt, who was recently appointed professor in neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, was forced to apologise by Jacqui Smith, the former Home Secretary, after comparing the risks of taking ecstasy with those of riding a horse.

He was sacked last week after he criticised the separation of alcohol and cigarettes from illegal drugs in government policy. He said that smoking cannabis posed a "relatively small risk" of psychosis, and that those who wanted ecstasy to be reclassified as a less harmful substance had "won the intellectual argument".

In a letter to The Guardian this week, Mr Johnson says that Professor Nutt was "not sacked for his views, which I respect but disagree with", but "because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy".

Professor Nutt said the issue came to a head after an edited version of a lecture he gave at King's College London in July was made public. He had discussed the lecture with the Home Office beforehand.

Arguing that he had not exceeded the parameters of his role, he said: "My remit is to help the Government and Parliament to do the right thing with the health of the population relating to drugs. That is my job. If my council and I think that the Government is actually extraordinarily ambiguous over the real toxicity of certain drugs, then I tell them, because it is a significant health and science issue."

The academics to resign from the ACMD in protest at Professor Nutt's dismissal are Les King, a chemist and former head of the Drugs Intelligence Unit in the Forensic Science Service, and Marion Walker, a representative from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

The Conservative Party said that Professor Nutt should have been sacked sooner.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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