Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Freedom of speech within science

Not so much research but a rant. As you may have heard the chief advisor to the government about drugs policy Prof Nutt was told to resign recently after he gave a lecture stating his views on cannabis classification in the UK and how the government (former Home Secretary Jackie Smith) did not listen to their advice on the matter and increased its classification and punishment for taking it. I do not care about the drug’s classification to be honest. I don’t take it and never have but the current Home Secretary (Alan Johnson, tipped to be future Labour leader, among a couple of others) has had a disagreement with the scientist and dismissed him after he gave a lecture stating his opinion. The reason given was he had crossed the boundary between science and politics. What? A scientist who is an unpaid advisor states his opinion based on evidence then states the government didn’t listen to them when deciding policy is crossing the line?! It sounds like he was starting a debate, using his freedom of speech to discuss topics. The government has decided no, if you don’t agree with us and you are helping us then sod off. Whether you agree with Prof Nutt or not I don’t think it matters. What matters is whether advisors are allowed to criticise the government’s policy when they are not listened to. They believe not. Alan Johnson said: ‘he was not dismissed because of the work of the council but because of his failure to recognise that... his role is to advise rather than criticise’. My PM Gordon Brown said: ‘Prof Nutt had repeatedly undermined Labour's drug message.’ I think it is ridiculous to suggest a scientist cannot talk about such things in public and suggests to me the government is being hypersensitive over these matters. Perhaps because they cannot handle anymore bad press and people going against them. After all the chances of them winning the next election are slim to none.

So far Lord Drayson (a businessman) who determines science policy in the government’s Business department and coordinates with the research councils was strongly against this when he first heard it. Lord Winston FRS, a respected scientist in the public eye and Labour peer, is against the dismissal and Prof John Beddington FRS (who recently recovered an honorary degree from York University in the Summer 2009 graduation ceremony) has spoken the most sense on the matter ( He is the chief advisor to the government on all things sciencey. He points out most scientific committees do not have a problem with the government. This is reassuring but and the send of an email the Home Secretary (with no background what so ever in science) has dismissed an advisor and caused two to quit in sympathy because they don’t think they can work with a government that a) doesn’t listen to them and b) forces out the head of the committee for no good reason. I think this is unacceptable from the government hence I have written to the Home Secretary and feel I should email my local MP as well. Hopefully my next post will contain more science and less ranting. It’s being planned, just need to get some pretty photos.


Joseph Boyle said...

I think the government needs to justify its classification on drugs if it is going to get any support on this issue, basically they need to either explain why cannabis is illegal if they accept that it is less dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes or why they think cannabis is more dangerous. If they don’t give a (good) reason to people like Professor Nutt then how can they blame him for holding to his view? Alan Johnson certainly didn’t try to explain why Nutt’s opinion is wrong during his Sky interview or in his letter to the Guardian and for me that is the key missing piece here.

Btw, while I didn't think the BBC coverage was great, I liked how the guy at the end of this video makes us scientists sound so sinister.

James Lloyd said...

Thanks for the link. it is difficult for policy to reflect the science and public feeling but for the government to go so far off the rails with this one is what astounds me. the question is if weed is as harmful or less harmful than smoking or drinking then should we outlaw them all or make them all legal. for historical reasons i dont think we can outlaw smoking and alcohol but to legalise cannabis to me is allowing mass production of something that does cause harm (cancer if nothing else) so i am not a fan of that.

i have seen people start smoking pot, not have any aims and waste there time doing nothing and i would like to increase that. however, i am sure that happens with alcohol hell of a lot so again historical reasons are the only reason and it is not a good one. the public would be unhappy generally if we changed it all in either direction. but clearly this was a big mistake on the policy makers for both the original change and how they dealt with this.

Menelaos Symeonides said...