The UK government has told its independent advisor on drug abuse to resign after he again called for a more scientific approach to drugs.
David Nutt, until now chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), delivered a lecture at King’s College London in July, an edited version of which was published earlier this week reiterating his views on the relative safety of different drugs [Corrected 02/11]. We noted at the time that he “looks set for another row with politicians who continue to ignore researchers’ advice over illegal substances”.
In his lecture he said, “Using the [Misuse of Drugs] Act in a political way to give messages other than those relating to relative harms undermines the Act and does great damage to the educational message. We also have to fully endorse harm reduction approaches at all levels and especially stop the artificial separation of alcohol and tobacco as ‘non-drugs’.” (PDF.)
Nutt had earlier riled a previous home secretary, Jacqui Smith, with his comments regarding the dangers of MDMA (‘ecstasy’), comparing the risks of the drug to horse-riding and calling for a wider debate on society’s approach to risk.
Today Alan Johnson, the current UK Home Secretary, told Nutt to resign.
“In a letter he [Johnson] expressed surprise and disappointment over Professor Nutt’s comments which damage efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs,” said a Home Office spokesperson. “As chair of the council his actions undermine its role and scientific independence. … [T]he clear role of the chair of the ACMD is to provide independent scientific advice and not to lobby for changes in policy.”
However the sacking of Nutt has already generated a furious response from other UK politicians.
Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat MP and member of Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee, said, “The political sacking of a distinguished scientist, who is the chair of an independent scientific advisory committee, for the ‘crime’ of having different views than the Secretary of State is an enormous blow to the credibility of the Government’s approach to scientific evidence.”
Harris cites a recent response from the government to a committee inquiry on evidence based policy which stated:
The Government agrees that the independence of science advisers is critical. It was precisely for this reason that the GCSA [Government Chief Scientific Adviser] wrote to then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to express concern over her criticism, in Parliament, of Professor Nutt (Chairman of ACMD) with regard to an article he published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Phil Willis, the chairman of the Science and Technology committee, said, “As Chair of the Science and Technology committee I am writing immediately to the Home Secretary to ask for clarification as to why the distinguished scientist David Nutt has been removed of duties as Chair of Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs at a time when independent scientific advice to government is essential. It is disturbing if an independent scientist should be removed for reporting sound scientific advice.”
UPDATE – Read Nature’s interview with Nutt here: Sacked science adviser speaks out
Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies where Nutt gave his lecture in July, has written to the Home Secretary. His letter, distributed by the Science Media Centre, is copied below.
Image: University of Bristol
Dear Home Secretary,
I am writing to you about your decision to dismiss Professor David Nutt as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
It was the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies that asked Professor Nutt to present his analysis at a lecture at King’s College London in July of this year. Following the lecture Professor Nutt agreed to our publishing an edited version, which we did last Thursday. A copy of this publication, along with the press release, can be accessed on our website here. The publicity material for the lecture can be viewed on our website here.
In your letter to Professor Nutt advising him that you were dismissing him from his role, you wrote that his contribution went ‘against the requirements on general standards of public life’ required by his position as chair of the ACMD. You went on to write:
‘As chair of the ACMD you cannot avoid appearing to implicate the Council in your comments and thereby undermining its scientific independence’.
I would like to make it clear that Professor Nutt gave his lecture, and agreed to its subsequent publication, in his capacity as the Edmond J Safra Chair of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. This is stated clearly in the original publicity and in the subsequent paper. Professor Nutt made some references to the ACMD in his paper as it was relevant to his argument. At no point did he make reference to his role as chair of the ACMD, nor did he give the impression that he was speaking on behalf of the ACMD.
I have to conclude that the public confusion between Professor Nutt’s academic role and his chairmanship of the ACMD has been sowed by the Home Office, not by Professor Nutt nor by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.
Academics who advise government should feel confident that they retain the freedom to act as independent researchers without the threat of political interference or undue pressure of any kind. It is in the public interest that you clarify your thinking on this matter and I look forward to receiving your response.
Centre for Crime and Justice Studies