Scientific advisers demand fresh start with Government

Great and good unveil principles to guide relationship between the state and scientific advice in the aftermath of the Nutt affair. Zoë Corbyn reports

November 6, 2009

Scientists are seeking to renegotiate the terms under which they provide scientific advice to the Government following the sacking of drugs adviser David Nutt.

A total of 28 high-profile scientists – including current and former chairs of independent expert advisory committees – have endorsed a new set of principles “for the treatment of independent scientific advice”, which they are calling on the Government to sign.

The demands follow the decision by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, to sack Professor Nutt from his role as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). The professor in neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London was ordered out last week after criticising government drugs policy.

The principles cover “academic freedom”, “independence of operation” and “proper consideration of advice”, and say that being a member of an independent advisory committee “does not reduce the freedom of an adviser to communicate publicly” via any mechanism, whether journals, conferences, the media or Parliament.

But they also recognise that confidentiality must be respected, say advisers must not claim to speak for the Government, and make clear whether they are communicating on behalf of their committees.

The signatories include Sir Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society; Sir John Krebs, former chairman of the Food Standards Agency; and Sir Robert May, the former Chief Scientific Adviser.

Colin Blakemore, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council and current chair of the Food Standards Agency’s General Advisory Committee on Science, is one of the organisers. He said that the principles aim to clear the slate with the Government.

“If the Government can sign up to this statement, which essentially summarises commitments that have been made in the past, I hope that we can press the ‘reset’ button,” he said.

“The priority now must be to rebuild the confidence of the scientific community in the way the Government – and indeed the Opposition parties – treats scientific advice and those who provide it.”

The statement also says that independent advisory committees should be “protected from political and other interference” in their work.

“Disagreement with government policy and the public articulation and discussion of relevant evidence and issues by members of advisory committees cannot be grounds for criticism or dismissal,” the document says.

It adds that reports from the committees should “usually be published and not normally be criticised or rejected prior to publication”.

If the Government is minded to reject a recommendation, the relevant committee should “normally be invited to comment privately before a final decision is made”, it says.

It acknowledges that some policy decisions are contingent on factors other than scientific evidence, but says that when expert scientific advice is rejected, “the reasons should be described explicitly and publicly”.

It also stresses that the committees’ advice does not cease to be valid “merely because it is rejected or not reflected in policy”, and says they need an independent press office.

It adds that agreement on the principles would “enhance confidence in the scientific advisory system and help the Government to secure essential advice”.

The principles, released on 6 November, can be viewed on the Sense About Science website:

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