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Nov 12, 2009

#Nuttsack sparks debate about science and society

The UK's Nuttsack affair has sparked the question: can a scientific adviser give advice without talking about policy? If they can, should they? asks Science blogger Michael Slezak.

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A very serious affair with a very amusing hash-tag is spiralling out of control in the UK. #Nuttsack is the twitter hash-tag for the sacking of the UK’s chief drug adviser, Professor David Nutt. Although utterly scandalous, the sacking and its blowback might lead to some positive changes and to a public more engaged in debates about the relationship between science and society.

Nearly two weeks ago the chair of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Professor Nutt, was sacked by  Home Secretary Alan Johnson for arguing publicly that the government’s policy on drugs was not supported by the evidence.

Soon after, two other advisers quit in protest. Yesterday, after a meeting that Johnson described as very constructive, three more drug advisers quit — leaving the ACMD paralysed, unable to meet quorum.

The underlying point of Nutt’s offending comments was that the government ignores evidence in devising its drug policy. In response, they sacked him. The irony is hard to miss. Sacking the man responsible for bringing evidence to the government for arguing that their policy is not evidence-based does nothing but prove his point.

While both sides of parliament support the sacking, it has received nearly universal condemnation from the international media and even the UK’s Minister of Science, Lord Drayson, was privately outraged by the Home Secretary’s handling of the situation.

One Guardian reader, Eric Alexander, summed up the scandal well when he sarcastically wrote “It’s not the job of the government’s scientific advisers to offer scientific advice to the government. They should be providing a rationale for government policy, the way military intelligence advisers did in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.”

The connection to other issues is clear. Another important parallel is to the climate-change debate. Do we really want our science advisers to be fearful of government reactions to their advice? Johnson argues first that Nutt did not inform the government of his offending comments before he made them and moreover that the comments had “crossed the line” from science to policy.

The first claim appears to be false and Johnson is facing accusations of misleading parliament for making it. Nutt did, it seems, inform the government of the content of the speech. The second claim raises some interesting questions. Can a scientific adviser give advice without talking about policy? If they can, should they?

They can’t. And if they can, they shouldn’t. The ACMD is charged with the responsibility to assess the social impact of drugs as well as their physiological effects. How we are supposed to draw a line between comments regarding the social effect of a drug and comments about the effects of drug policy is anyone’s guess. They seem to be more-or-less the same issue.

In an editorial of the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Nutt compared the drug ecstasy with what he called “equasy”, or “Equine Addiction Syndrome”. He showed that according to all the criteria for measuring the harm caused by ecstacy, the habit of horse riding came out worse.

In other fora, Nutt also made the all-too-obvious point that cannabis is less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol.

Johnson’s foolish manoeuvre pushed Nutt a long way over this supposed line than he ever would have stepped on his own. In the fallout of the sacking he has published editorials in New Scientist and The Guardian and done dozens of interviews about the issues Johnson wanted him to shut-up about.

He has also vowed to set up his own independent drug advisory group so that he can continue provoking debate about drug policy. In addition, the sacking has moved bloggers, letter writers, columnists and tweeters to take part in an important debate about the role scientists ought to play in society.

As others have noted, this public debate that has ensued has been of a surprisingly high calibre. The public are engaging with complex and subtle questions with refreshing sobriety.

And this time the good guys are winning. As a result of Johnson’s trigger-happy response and the ensuing public debate, it looks like legislation, supported by Lord Drayson, might get passed saying that ministers do not have the power to sack advisers who disagree with government policy.

Some have suggested that affair is just what the drug decriminalisation movement needed. Johnson’s attempt to censor Nutt might end up ensuring that he will get even more fearless advice, and be rendered unable to keep that advice from the public.

Michael Slezak is a freelance journalist, philosophy teacher and runs the science blog Good, Bad, and Bogus.

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2 comments

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2 thoughts on “#Nuttsack sparks debate about science and society

  1. Roger Clifton

    It would be good if the Rudd government restored the climatologists of CSIRO and BOM to the status of Australia’s authorities on climate change and what we should do about it.

    Perhaps that will have to wait until we have a government which is willing to heed their advice.

  2. robbi64

    Some further background may help people understand why there is such a debate about cannabis use – and why politicians are getting jumpy about it.

    Psychology is currently having a hot debate about whether cannabis might cause psychosis. There are several studies about demonstrating a link, particularly in the population known to be vulnerable to schizophrenia. There are also a few studies showing brain damage in PTSD sufferers who use cannabis regularly.

    These studies are all very small and limited, and very much confined to an abnormal population. What we cannot say is which comes first, chicken or egg. It is interesting to note that this uncertainty has not stopped some people in psychology from suggesting that these limited studies constitute “proof” of cannabis causing harm … when the herb has been used all over the place for centuries and has never been strongly linked with causing harm before the 20th century. We cannot say the same about alcohol, yet these same people are not pushing for alcohol use to be criminalised?

    I suppose it would be a long bow, if I were to suggest that drugs didn’t really get commercialised and marketed until the 20th century. Prior to then, people self medicated as they saw fit, and we did not have a PBS or GlaxoSmithKline. As I have done no studies into it myself, I can only wonder about the apparent coincidence.

    Anyway, the pollies get put under a lot of pressure by all sorts of mental health lobbies. They are hopeless at dealing with this issue, so anything they can do to make it look like they’re Doing Something Useful, they’ll grab at. Hence, they’ll even do things like tell independent scientists to give them what they want to hear, or get out.

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