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November 03, 2009

When scientists lose touch…the case of David Nutt

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If a scientist – or any academic – were fired whenever she said something that her peers regarded as false, then scientists would hardly ever say anything at all, out of fear of rejection. As it happens, science’s own peer review process already induces a certain measure of timidity, but tenured scientists (admittedly a dying breed) can remain gainfully employed while rejected by colleagues. All of this is important to science because free and open inquiry is the only way knowledge truly progresses.

Politics is something else entirely. Politicians are directly affected by the consequences of their decisions. In fact, that is the whole point of politics, especially in a democracy, where politicians don’t exist apart from those they govern. If people don’t like a policy, no matter how well-thought out or well-evidenced it is, then the policy goes and the politicians pay. This explains the long tradition of scientists advising politicians but staying away from actually making policy.

David Nutt, recently departed chair of the current Labour government’s drugs council, has long argued strenuously and colourfully for the declassification of narcotics like ecstasy and cannabis. The scientific side of the argument is quite strong though given the taboos and mysteries that surround ordinary drug use, there is always room to doubt the reliability of what we know. In any case, Nutt is paid to be a scientist not a politician. Once Nutt learned that the government would not implement his position, given how strongly he apparently feel about the matter, he should have simply resigned. And if he wants to get closer to politics, he can still sell his services to a more sympathetic party (Liberal Democrats?) or start a political action committee.

What amazes me is that Nutt had to wait to be fired. Why didn’t he just resign in protest? This is certainly not an unheard of option in the current Labour government! Inasmuch as I am inclined to agree with Nutt’s substantive position on drugs, I find his behaviour incredibly clueless. He clearly doesn’t understand the relationship between science and politics in a democracy. Politicians don’t ask scientists for advice because they want the scientists to rule on their behalf. Scientists are asked more in the spirit of a special interest group, albeit one with considerable mystique, rather like the church. Just as politicians would ideally like to have the church on their side, so too they would like to have the scientific community. However, politicians need to keep a lot of interests and prospects in balance, since in the end it is all about winning elections. And neither the clerics nor the scientists need to face the electorate. It’s as simple as that.

What is perhaps most striking about this episode is the demonstration of political backbone by the Home Office in standing down a formidable and noisy scientific advocate like Professor Nutt. This is a good sign that science is becoming normalised in democratic politics. I also suspect that politicians are becoming more informed about the sociology of science, which teaches not only that uncertainty is always present in science but also that the overall weight of scientific opinion can shift drastically with the appearance of a few well-supported studies. Imagine if Nutt got his way, and then as a conscientious scientist he was forced to change his mind six months later in light of new evidence, and then government policy changed alongside it. It’s hard to see how science’s - or for that matter, the government's - public standing would become stronger in the process.

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