Go back

Lessons learned from Nutt fallout

The government is to rework the terms of engagement for using scientific advice, science minister Paul Drayson has confirmed.

Drayson says that the government will endorse the recommendations set out by a group of scientists in Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice and that a set of rules governing science advisory bodies will be prepared by Christmas. The science minister will work with the signatories of the principles on the terms as well as other government scientific advisers.

The principles, which were signed by a number of respected scientists, including Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, and former chief scientific adviser Bob May, state that speaking out about policy issues should not constitute grounds for dismissal when a scientist is advising the government in an unpaid capacity and that advisory boards should be allowed to operate without political pressure.

They were published in response to the sacking of David Nutt from his position as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs last week by home secretary Alan Johnson. The decision sparked fury among scientists, many of whom have warned that Johnson’s actions could discourage academics from working for the government in the future.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, Drayson said that he has spent the past few days in discussions with Johnson, the Prime Minister and John Beddington, the government chief scientific advisor, about how to handle the situation and that he has decided to draw up the new terms as a result, based on the ideas put forward in the principles document.
“I want to absolutely underline the government’s commitment to the principle of academic freedom and independent scientific advice— the principle and the practice,” he says. “These principles are a very good starting point.”

Drayson says that he hopes that the terms will go some way to drawing some good from the Nutt scandal.

“What this has shown is that both the political world and the scientific world need to have a better understanding of each other but also that the rules of engagement need to be more rigorously applied,” he says.

Nutt was dismissed after making a speech at King’s College London in July, which was published in a pamphlet last week, during which he suggested that ministers “distort” the value of scientific evidence in their policies. He argues that the government’s classification of ecstasy and cannabis should be reassessed and says that his panel has faced continual political interference in its work since Gordon Brown came into office.
Nutt has called for Drayson to lead on remodelling the ACMD in the wake of his departure. But while Drayson says that the terms of engagement will address issues such as giving committees access to an independent press office, he believes that Beddington would be better placed to advise on the specifics of the ACMD itself. “I do think that it is the role of the advisers to advise ministers on the setting up of those committees. My role as science minister is to champion science in government.”

Drayson says that Johnson was wrong to sack Nutt without consulting either him or Beddington and that he would expect ministers to communicate with him in the future on such matters before taking action. However, asked whether he agreed in principle with the sacking of Nutt, if not the method, the minister said that he does not think it “helpful” to go over the details of the incident.