Why Nutt is probably in the right

Posted on November 4, 2009 at 8:22 pm,

Professor David NuttBefore continuing with my critique of Capitalism, I thought I’d comment on the Professor Nutt story. If you’ve not been following the story, David Nutt was, until last week, the head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. He was then sacked by Home Secretary Alan Johnson because of a lecture he delivered where he essentially said that government drugs policy was not in line with the scientific evidence. Alan Johnson believes that Professor Nutt had “crossed a line” into politics, whilst Professor Nutt doesn’t believe that he has done so.

Whilst I sympathise with Mr Johnson – having your advisers criticise your policy in public does make it a lot harder to work with them – I think firstly that Mr Johnson appears to have handled this situation very badly (sacking Professor Nutt has simply highlighted that drugs policy is not based on scientific evidence), and secondly that Professor Nutt is, on balance, in the right. Here are two reasons why.

The Nature of Science

If you want good scientific advice, then you need to choose advisers who are active in a relevant field. And that means that your advisers must be free to publish papers and deliver lectures in that field without interference from the government. If, as a government, you consistently ignore the advice you are given, then you must expect that these papers and lectures will reflect the advice rather than your policies.

In his lecture, Professor Nutt pointed out that Cannabis is much less dangerous than alcohol, and that government policy is not formed solely on the basis of scientific evidence. As a scientific opinion, this is not remarkable and had Professor Nutt not been on the advisory council, nobody would have batted an eyelid. It would appear, therefore, that Mr Johnson believes that advising the government means that scientists are not allowed to advise the government and also continue doing science independently of government policy. Which is presumably the reason that the rest of the council are very concerned and either have resigned or are thinking of doing so.

The Misuse of Drugs Act

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was set up by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. That act has been amended a number of times, and I haven’t been able to easily find the text of the act as amended. However, the original text says this about the purpose of the council:

(d) for educating the public (and in particular the young) in the dangers of misusing such drugs, and for giving publicity to those dangers; and

So Professor Nutt’s remit as part of this council is to educate people about the dangers of drugs (assuming that this clause was not removed in any of the later amendments). Which is precisely what he was doing in the lecture which got him sacked.

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