When is a scientific paper political campaigning?

By Grant Jacobs 03/11/2009

When media and politicians make it that way?

Just after I posted about scientific advisors last night I became aware of a huge fuss in the blogosphere and media over the sacking of Professor David Nutt, the Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in the UK (i.e. a government science advisor), after being slammed by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.

If you’re a fan of British drama, there’s plenty more of it and it’s certain to drag out for many more episodes.

The original source of the statements that have caused so much fuss are available on-line (open access) in the independent peer-reviewed Journal of Psychopharmacology 23:3 (2009, DOI: 10.1177/0269881108099672; 86Kb PDF download). It’s quite readable, go ahead and try.

“Of course”, different people point to different reasons from the same article for the fuss.

Some, like Dr Newcombe (see comments section), point to his suggested changes in the classification of some drugs:

Professor Nutt has been sacked from the government’s expert advisory body (ACMD) for telling the media that his review of the scientific evidence shows that cannabis, ecstasy and LSD are less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. Since the ACMD was set up in 1971, UK governments have nearly always acted upon their advice — until recently. In 2008 they rejected the ACMD’s advice that cannabis should stay in class C; and in 2009 they rejected their advice that ecstasy should be downgraded to class B. In short, despite claiming that our drug policy is now evidence-based, these government responses show they cannot cope with the truth about drugs even from their own advisers! The nasty, corrupt beast of drug prohibition is in its death throes, and the government has betrayed its realisation of this fact by its panicky efforts to silence its own experts.

Dr Russell Newcombe

Senior researcher, Lifeline Project

Others point to his comparison of the risk of drugs with the risks of horse riding, as does MP Alan Johnson (the MP who requested that he resign):

As for his comments about horse riding being more dangerous than ecstasy, which you quote with such reverence, it is of course a political rather than a scientific point. There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse — there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.

Mr Johnson errs here in claiming that Prof Nutt refers to a absolute count of those at risk; he in fact refers to the relative risk.

Furthermore, Prof. Nutt’s comparison with horse riding isn’t the (or a) point he is trying to make. Prof Nutt’s paper takes an approach of looking at an imaginary addiction, equasy (Equine Addiction Syndrome), to illustrate the problems involved in classifying drug risks. He’s not trying to make a comparison as such, but using the example to illustrate the underlying issues in defining the risk.

This is an approach that should be familiar to most bloggers and readers. If the issue tends to be emotive, try illustrate the logic and issues with an example that doesn’t draw emotional heat by way of comparison. This approach is also used to reveal hidden preferences in “consumers” of the statistics or other data in question.

While time has passed since her writing these words, I think that Fiona Fox’s take from February 2009 is particularly worth reading. (Fiona Fox is the Directory of the UK’s Science Media Centre (SMC), the British counterpart to our own.)

If she is right, the makings of this fuss lies with the Daily Telegraph, who wrote prior to publication of Prof. Nutt’s report (PDf file; see point 58. on page 20). We all know that mainstream media likes a good drama and can play a hand in creating them. Nothing new there. The question this raises to me is that is the British government responding to the media fuss by making Prof. Nutt a scapegoat, rather than dealing with the media fuss?

For a science communicator (or fan!) Fiona’s article gets more interesting. Apparently the UK SMC decided not to play ball:

we declined to do so on the basis that the Centre’s fiercely protected independence was being undermined by the conditions being placed on us by the Home Office press officers about aspects of the press briefings.

I have to admit I’d just love to know the details of the conditions the Home Office press officers (tried to) impose!

But back to the saga.

In a letter to the Guardian newspaper, MP Alan Johnson, the MP who has requested Prof. Nutt’s resignation (this article includes a copy of the letter requesting his resignation and the reply), writes:

He [Prof. Nutt] was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.

This, of course, raises the ugly question that if you report a finding or discuss what, in your expert experience, are issues involved in a decision relevant to a particular policy are you then liable to be dismissed for being “a campaigner against government policy”?

Reporting a finding or discussing issues should be distinct from campaigning. Surely?

Or is it a case of when a politician says it’s campaigning against government policy, it is?

Then there is BBC home editor Mark Easton’s take on it following on from his previous article announcing of Prof. Nutt’s sacking. I can’t help thinking that the “public confusion” is the consequence of the “media attention” Alan Johnson refers to earlier in his letter, i.e. that Prof. Nutt is being sacked as an attempt to quell a media storm more than anything else. I would have thought that would suggest that the politicians need to deal with the media, more so than Prof. Nutt.

All the heavy-weight media commentators are rolling in and I’m sure you’ll read more elsewhere as a result.

My thoughts? If even a fraction of this is true, this is bad news indeed.

I don’t know much at all about assessing drug classifications, which is why I’m not commenting on his examination of the assessment of drug classification issues. That’s for a specialist familiar with those issues. But by the same token, surely that’s not for their government to criticise either?

What I do think is important is that scientific advisors be able to speak freely even if their examination of the issues runs contrary to policy or the wishes of parliament or party and that this be strongly upheld. They are supposed to be independent, and if that independence is lost, the credibility of their advice goes with it.

Indeed this very point is made by the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee in their report Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, Eighth Report of Session 2008—09 Volume I (see page 22.):

65. The independence of scientific advisers is crucial. The most important aspect of any scientific or engineering advice is that it is politically and ideologically neutral; it must take into consideration all the relevant evidence and be presented fairly and impartially. Independence from Government is essential for advisers so that they are free to present the evidence without fear of prejudice or attack from those they advise. That is why independence is important.

Update: Readers should also see Peter Griffith’s blog article on the same issue.

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