Principled stand

Scientists offered guidelines to repair the damage caused by the Nutt affair, but the Government’s response threatens to undermine independent advice and must be resisted, writes Evan Harris

December 18, 2009

This week, the Government published its version of the principles for the treatment of scientific advice (http://nds.coi.gov.uk/content/detail.aspx?NewsAreaId=2&ReleaseID=409612). Given that the purpose of the project is to try to fix the broken relationship between the Government and independent science advisers, it is remarkable and frankly depressing that the current proposals look set to make things even worse.

The original principles (http://bit.ly/scienceadvice) were drafted by senior members of the science community and Sense about Science (who I, with others, advised directly on the matter), in the wake of the sacking of David Nutt by the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson. They were born as a response to the crisis of confidence caused by the Nutt affair and the Government’s treatment of both scientific advisers and their advice.

The unfair attacks in Parliament (http://www.drevanharrismp.wordpress.com) on Nutt, a distinguished scientist and scholar, by Johnson and his predecessor, Jacqui Smith – neither of whom can be regarded as the Roy Jenkins of their own professions – were a further provocation to the science community.

Leading researchers felt they had better things to do than run the risk of being unpaid scapegoats for evidence-free tabloid-chasing government policies on drugs and knife crime.

The original principles had very sensible and specific headings such as “academic freedom”, “independence of operation” and “proper consideration of advice” – concepts that are key to a good relationship between advisers and ministers. The principles amounted to a short and cogent code of practice for ministers to complement the 110-paragraph Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC) (http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file480.pdf).

The principles recognised that governments do not have to take the advice they are given but that ministers have a responsibility not to “shoot the messenger” and to secure the best possible quality of advice. They were a sincere attempt to offer the Government a constructive way forward and persuaded me that it was more sensible to seek to promote a new understanding that secured academic freedom and proper independence than to urge more advisers to resign in protest or disgust, or to call for a boycott of advisory committees.

Stung by the two immediate resignations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in protest at Nutt’s treatment, the Government realised it had a problem. The resignation of three more scientists from the ACMD after a meeting with the Home Secretary that he described as “friendly and constructive”, albeit after Johnson had said publicly that he had no regrets over how he had treated Nutt, must surely have served to focus the rational minds within the Government even more sharply on the urgent need to restore the confidence of advisers.

Riding to the rescue (if the Government only knew it) came Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, who sent the principles – endorsed by 70 leading science advisers – to the Prime Minister. The Government seemed relieved to have the chance to announce it would consider them.

Yet after five weeks of deliberation, it ditched some of the key protections – such as the guarantee of immunity of proper academic activity from attack, sanction or dismissal, and the freedom to repeat rejected advice publicly – and inserted instead more nebulous concepts such as “trust” and “respect”. Out of ten mentions of “scientific advisers”, the adjective “independent” appears only twice in the Government’s paper.

Here is the ugliest part of its offering: “The Government and its scientific advisers should work together to reach a shared position, and neither should act to undermine mutual trust.”

In 2000, the report into the bovine spongiform encephalopathy disaster led by Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers set down what was required to get the best scientific advice: avoiding collusion and the appearance of it was fundamental. So the proposition that those asked to assess the evidence base and give independent scientific advice without fear or favour should be required to work with politicians to reach a “shared position” is an absurd contradiction of the whole concept.

To publish a statement that so utterly contradicts Lord Phillips’ golden rule – that there must be a clear distinction between expert assessment of evidence and the production of policy based on it (or not) – either the very sane and sensible Science Minister Lord Drayson must have taken leave of his senses, or his hand must have been forced by more malign or Neanderthal forces lurking in the corridors of power.

The proposal that neither the Government nor the adviser “should act to undermine mutual trust” presupposes that all potential advisers respect and trust their politicians. I venture to suggest that at a time when the Government needs all the independent advisers it can get, to restrict its recruits to the subset who respect and trust the Home Secretary of the day is tantamount to casting the fishing net into a friendly puddle and ignoring the heaving seas.

In any event, respect for a minister is not a requirement for expertise in a scientific discipline and – until we have the George W. Bush approach to policymaking – it should form no part of the recruitment process for membership of advisory committees.

The other problem with a universal test of whether conduct or communication “undermines trust” is that it is wholly subjective and undefined. In stark contrast to the science community’s original proposal guaranteeing academic freedom and allowing advisory committee members to speak freely about the advice they have given even if rejected, this clause allows sanctions and the threat of sanctions to be wielded against advisers in an arbitrary way without a breach of CoPSAC.

The harm stems not only from the victimisation of advisers prepared, in the words of Sense about Science’s managing director Tracey Brown, “to speak the truth to power”, but also from the chilling effect on all the others.

On the question of how to get out of the hole it is in regarding scientists’ confidence in the way they are treated, my independent free advice to the Government would be to stop digging. Yet every public intervention it has so far made on this issue seems designed to deepen the chasm of mistrust and cynicism that now exists.

The Commons Science and Technology Committee, on which I sit, this week announced that it was endorsing the original principles. On the same day, I asked Johnson at the dispatch box whether, despite the resignations he had previously provoked, he would do the same thing again. “Absolutely, yes,” he said, while looking nervously across at the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, who has said he should have sacked Nutt even earlier – presumably for giving the wrong advice in the first place.

Well, absolutely yes, you can bully one scientist here and sack another one there, but do not expect to fill six vacancies on the main statutory Home Office Advisory Committee, which is currently moribund. Drug policy is thus likewise suspended since ACMD advice is a prerequisite to drug classifications.

It’s not too late for sense to prevail: the consultation on these principles is now open (http://www.berr.gov.uk/consultations/page53603.html). We should all hope that the Government wakes up to the damage it is doing.

The original principles can be publicly endorsed at http://bit.ly/scienceadvice.

Ultimately we will all suffer if politicians ignore expert advice and policy is evidence-free. Leading scientists would rather research and publish freely than have the “privilege” of advising ministers for free but losing their credibility and academic freedom in the process. The Government needs the service of scientists more than scientists need to serve the Government: ministers would do well to remember that.

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