Row over Scientific Independence Continues

The row over the sacking of Professor David Nutt, the Government’s chief drugs advisor, rumbled on today with the publication of an open letter from over 20 eminent members of the scientfic community, calling for scientific independence to be respected.

Academics including Professor Lord Robert May, former Government Chief Scientific Advisor and president of the Royal Socety and Professor Lord Martin Rees, current Royal Society president, called on the UK Government to sign up to a new set of guidlines, which argue that argue that “disagreement with government policy and the public articulation and discussion of relevant evidence and issues by members of advisory committees can not be grounds for criticism or dismissal.”

When scientific advice is rejected, the experts said, the reasons should be described explicitly and publicly.

The open letter comes after Prime Minister Gordon Brown was called on to respond to the row over Professor Nutt’s dismissal at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. The following excerpt from Hansard outlines the question put to the Prime Minister, and his response:

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): As a former Science Minister myself, I am well aware that scientific advice can be politically inconvenient, but will the Prime Minister reassure the scientific community that when disagreements happen, he will engage in rational debate rather than shoot the messenger?

The Prime Minister: Scientific advice is valued by the Government in every area. On climate change, on foot and mouth, on dealing with swine flu and on nuclear matters as well as on drugs, we have very good scientists who have been advising us. From the drugs advisory committee, we accepted all but three of more than 30 recommendations. The issue was not the ability of the committee to give advice or the expertise of the members, it was that once Ministers have had to decide a position, after listening to advice on a wider range of social issues than simply the scientific advice, it does not make sense to send out mixed messages to the whole community about drugs. That is why the Home Secretary made his decision.