Saturday, November 07, 2009

Hell hath no fury like...a politician criticised?

Listening to: 'Kings and Queens' by 30 Seconds to Mars [This is War]

Over the past week, there's been a furore regarding the sacking of Prof. David Nutt, and it's got me thinking about the role of science in politics, the purpose of advisory boards, freedom of speech etc. etc. For the uninitiated among you, here's what went down.
Prof. Nutt was the head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which (most notably) advises the government on the classification of harmful substances. The council members are actively engaged in the study of harmful substances (research, and presumably treatment of addiction) and are therefore experts in the field. The council presents scientific data to the government regarding the impact of substance use and abuse.
Now I haven't read the paper myself, but apparently Prof. Nutt's recent research shows that alcohol and tobacco are statistically more problematic than cannabis and ecstasy (in terms of dependence and physical harm). To this effect, he was a fierce proponent of a re-evaluation of their classification. He indicated in a lecture that he believed the high (in his mind unnecessarily so) classification of cannabis was more 'politically motivated than scientifically justified'...for which he was fired by the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson (a more detailed account can be found on Wikipedia, as usual).
It's sad that less than a month after the BBC (a government-related organisation) allowed BNP representation on Question Time (seen as a classic display of 'freedom of speech'), someone has lost his government-related position because he publicly disagreed with government policy. The Home Secretary's argument was that Nutt cannot sit on an advisory board and criticise government policy...but surely as a citizen of this country he's allowed to point out what he sees as wrong? Presumably the lecture was used to express his personal and professional opinion. If he was a parliamentarian and therefore a representative of the government, then yes I'll accept that he shouldn't be openly criticising his employer (he should resign, and then criticise them). But this brings me to the next point: do advisers represent the government?

I'm gonna Advisers represent the community from which they were selected for their advisory positions. So in this case, Prof. Nutt represents the scientific community. So what is the role of these advisers? Well, they respond to the government's request for advice. The government is at liberty to either accept or reject that advice. In the interest of transparency, the government is encouraged to explain their decision...but as far as I'm aware, there's no official requirement to do so. If the government chooses not to be transparent, people will speculate...and that's exactly what Nutt did.

Now in my opinion, Alan Johnson could've done the slimy politician diplomatic thing and fudged a reason for disregarding scientific evidence. Having lost family members to both alcohol and tobacco abuse, I wouldn't be surprised if Prof. Nutt's research is solid, but I can also understand if there were some non-scientific factors (such as crime statistics or cultural influences) that contributed to the government's position. I mean, there must be some reason that the government decided to ignore the facts, right? Johnson could've risen to the challenge and pointed out these reasons, thereby highlighting the complexity of policy-making...instead, he resorted to the thuggish option. Such a knee-jerk reaction merely gave Prof. Nutt's opinion more weight, and considering the public's current view of politicians, did the government no favours.

My personal views on alcohol, tobacco and cannabis are the same as they are on all stimulants (except chocolate and coffee, now those are sacred :P ), so I have no vested interest in the relevant government policy. I'll accept whatever policy is employed, as long as it is justifiable. As a member of the scientific community, I have a lot of respect for sound scientific research, but I accept that there are situations in which other factors take precedence. What irks me is the government's inability to accept constructive criticism...a flaw that's becoming more apparent with every crisis that NuLabour faces (and there have been many in recent times). With an election coming up, you'd think they'd try and get their house in order...or maybe they've accepted defeat already? Tick tock NuLabour, your time's running out.


  1. One thing that was made very clear in the recent past is that UK politics is no different from ours in the paradise isle. From Miliband’s indulgences in private jets to everything else that followed, they are as much a corrupt bunch as ours. Perhaps a side effect of eating too much curry? I wonder.

  2. ugh, those Brits! :P

  3. I think NuLabour has lost it's way a great deal. We all know that politics is a dirty deal. And Professor Nutt is probably right with all his scientific evidence. (Hell, I've probably worked on some of his research -I used to work with some of his team!) but I guess Mr Johnson has just employed a "either you're with us or against us" kinda policy. I do think that you need to be seen supporting your employers. Publically if not privately.

  4. Serendib_Isle - Yup, the only difference is that corruption in paradise is far more overt, and the public expect it (and dare I say encourage it, if it suits their needs). The general public in the UK tend to be more civic-minded than their counterparts in SL, but that's about it.

    Anon - yeah, them lot.

    Scrump - I agree, but advisers aren't 'employees' in the traditional sense no? I think Prof. Nutt was just being loyal to his profession. If he had publicly supported government policy after publishing that paper, wouldn't that be hypocritical?


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