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Correspondence: June 2011

Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

Changes will bring improvement, asserts James Brokenshire

With reference to ‘The government is set to confuse advice and governance’ (March 2100 issue, p29): The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) plays a vital role providing advice to government in the complex area of drug policy.

A provision in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill removes the statutory requirement for the Council to have members from six specified areas of expertise. However, we are not intending to remove any existing members from the ACMD, including scientists.

Changes will bring improvement, asserts James Brokenshire

With reference to ‘The government is set to confuse advice and governance’ (March 2100 issue, p29): The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) plays a vital role providing advice to government in the complex area of drug policy.

A provision in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill removes the statutory requirement for the Council to have members from six specified areas of expertise. However, we are not intending to remove any existing members from the ACMD, including scientists.

This change will provide flexibility for the future. It will allow the pattern of the ACMD’s membership to be adapted in response to the many changes impacting on the drugs landscape. It will also place all its members on an equal footing, recognising the fact the ACMD includes members from the fields of treatment, law enforcement, public health and social policy.

The ACMD was consulted and was supportive of the changes, as was the wider science community. Those consulted included the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the British Society of Criminology, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the Royal Society of Medicine.

The Government and the ACMD has jointly drafted a Working Protocol which makes clear that the views of the ACMD will be sought to inform recruitment and how recruitment, in line with the guidance of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, will be conducted.  A final version of the Protocol will be published in due course.  In the meantime, a Home Office fact sheet (available at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/) provides a list of likely relevant expertise we have identified with the ACMD for its future membership.   

This is first and foremost about better enabling the ACMD to fulfil its duty to provide informed, timely advice that will ultimately better protect our communities from drugs.

Peer review

It’s based on faith, replies Richard Smith

Tracey Brown (March 2011 issue, p27) makes the case for traditional peer review, but sadly she ignores the evidence—in an unscientific way. Ironically, peer review, a process at the heart of science, is faith-based, not evidence-based

It’s based on faith, replies Richard Smith

Tracey Brown (March 2011 issue, p27) makes the case for traditional peer review, but sadly she ignores the evidence—in an unscientific way. Ironically, peer review, a process at the heart of science, is faith-based, not evidence-based

As editor of the BMJ, I spent 25 years working with peer review, but as studies have failed to show its effectiveness and evidence has accumulated of its many defects I've turned against it. Plus I've recognised that the ‘real peer review’ is anyway what happens after publication Then the world decides which research matters and which doesn't.

A systematic review that examined all the evidence on the effectiveness of peer review concluded: ‘At present, little empirical evidence is available to support the use of editorial peer review as a mechanism to ensure quality of biomedical research.’

Yet evidence of its downside is abundant. It is slow, expensive (costing some $1.9 billion a year, according to the Research Information Network), largely a lottery, poor at detecting error, prone to bias, anti-innovatory, easily abused, and unable to spot fraud. I've summarised the evidence behind all these statements in an article free to all: http://breast-cancer-research.com/content/12/S4/S13.

But let me give you the evidence on error. We took a 600-word paper, inserted eight errors, and sent it to 300 reviewers. Nobody spotted more than five errors, the median number spotted was two, and a fifth didn't spot any errors. The study has been repeated many times.

Before the internet we lived in a world in a slow and inefficient world of ‘filter then publish.’ Now it's ‘publish then filter’, and there are many good filtration mechanisms much superior to traditional peer review.

James Brokenshire MP
James Brokenshire MP is Minister for Crime Prevention
Dr Richard Smith
Dr Richard Smith is Former editor of the British Medical Journal and board member of the Public Library of Science
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