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28/11/2014

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Paring the claws

Last October’s abrupt dismissal of Professor David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Committee on Misuse of Drugs, inevitably raised general questions about independent scientific advice to government.  Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, aimed to reassure the scientific community by issuing a set of draft Principles on independent scientific advice, but even then, the proposed wording of the guidelines was seen by some as an attempt to gag scientific advisors.  I will return to this point later.

I will briefly review the specifics of the Nutt Affair1 and then consider the more general question of scientific advice to government.

The Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is required to assess the risks and harms of drugs and advise on their classification, which in turn sets the penalties for possession or trading.  The penalty for possession of Class C substances is up to two years’ imprisonment; for Class B, up to five years; for Class A, up to seven. Each classification also allows an unlimited fine.

Nutt’s sacking

In July 2008, at the request of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, ACMD, then chaired by Sir Michael Rawlins, advised on the classification of cannabis.  The 2008 report of ACMD is very clear and careful.  Sir Michael Rawlins, in his letter to Jacqui Smith, says that cannabis is a ‘significant public health issue’, but that ‘after the most careful scrutiny of the totality of available evidence, the majority of the Council’s members consider – based on its harmfulness to individuals and society – that cannabis should remain a Class C substance.’  The classification of drugs is not an exact science, and involves expert judgement about risks and harms.  Although there are experts who disagree with the ACMD’s conclusion, the committee’s argument is based on transparent criteria that have been peer-reviewed.  

Ministers chose not to accept the advice and reclassified cannabis to Class B.

However, it was not the advice itself that led to the sacking of Professor Nutt, but the claim, by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, that Nutt crossed the boundary between science and policy by criticising the government’s decision. 

It is true that Professor Nutt was more outspoken than many Advisory Committee Chairs, but he appears to have operated within the guidelines of the ACMD, which in turn are taken from the Chief Scientific Adviser’s guidelines.  The publication, and subsequent media coverage, that led Alan Johnson to sack him was the text of the Eve Saville Lecture given at Kings College Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, published on the Centre’s website in October 2009 under Professor Nutt’s academic address. The Home Office had apparently been given advance notice of the lecture and its contents.  The lecture reviews the reasons behind the ACMD’s advice, makes some general comments about risk communication and comments critically on the Governments reasons for rejecting the advice.

Pre-judgement

Nutt could have justifiably been much more outspoken, and stated that Ministers had made up their minds before seeking advice from the independent experts.  Gordon Brown stated publicly, before ACMD carried out its review of cannabis, that it should be reclassified from C to B, and Sir Michael Rawlins felt compelled to write to the Prime Minister asking him to desist from pre-empting the expert advice. 

Similarly, when the ACMD was asked for advice on the classification of ecstasy, after they had reported on cannabis, Jacqui Smith wrote to the Government Chief Scientific Advisor on January 30 2009:  ‘We have no intention to reclassify ecstasy and it is my view that it should remain at Class A.’ The same letter goes on to say: ‘I have not yet received the ACMD’s advice.’  So it would appear that the personal opinion of the Home Secretary trumped the considered analysis of the statutory expert committee.  Perhaps the Home Secretary followed the advice of Gabriel Betteridge in The Moonstone: ‘Cultivate a superiority to reason, and see how you pare the claws of all the sensible people when they try to scratch you for your own good!’

Advice and policy

The link between scientific advice and policy decisions is not straightforward, because policymaking weaves the scientific advice into a broader tapestry including issues such as public acceptability, economic costs and benefits, and efficacy of different policy options in achieving the desired outcome.  It would therefore be naïve to expect every piece of expert advice to be translated directly into policy. In any case, ‘advisors advise and Ministers decide’.  But, as Lord Drayson acknowledged in the House of Lords on November 23 2009, if scientific advice is rejected, ‘it is therefore incumbent on Ministers to explain why a different decision has been reached.’  

Jacqui Smith’s account of the government’s reasons for rejecting the advice on cannabis were ‘public perception’ and the need to ‘err on the side of caution and protect the public’.2   However ACMD’s opinion poll showed that although 58 per cent of people thought that cannabis should be classified higher than C, 68 per cent thought that the penalties should be at the level of C or lower.  This contradictory response suggests that people do not understand the significance of the classification system, which determines the penalties. It is hardly resounding evidence for reclassification.  Likewise, experience in other countries has shown that increasing severity of penalties does not reduce consumption of cannabis, and indeed it may have the opposite effect.

Advice valued

Should the Nutt affair be taken as a more general signal that independent scientific advice is not valued?  No: politicians of all parties are keen to emphasise their commitment to evidence-based policy and very often, over a wide range of policy areas (from infection disease, to GM crops, to climate change), this commitment is fulfilled.  More than 70 expert committees provide advice, and most departments, with the notable exception of the Treasury, now have Chief Scientific Advisors.  

My own experience has been almost entirely positive.  For instance, in relation to badgers and bovine TB, the government both accepted my advice on the need to gather more evidence before deciding whether or not to cull badgers, and accepted the outcome of the randomised culling trials, even though it would be unpopular with farmers.  At the Food Standards Agency, difficult decisions, such as the BSE controls, were made on the basis of scientific evidence, although Ministers sometimes needed some persuasion not to opt for more populist solutions such as banning French beef.

Of course the story is sometimes less clear-cut. For example, the £542 million spent on Sure Start in its first three years, could have been invested with greater effect if a proper evidence base had been assembled first. Likewise, the free school fruit scheme, which was introduced without an evidence base to suggest that it would alter behaviour, produced an increase in fruit consumption amongst infants in the short term but did not appear to have any long-lasting effect.

New principles

The rules of engagement for scientific advice were spelled out by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s Guidelines on Scientific Advice and Policy Making, published in 1997 by Lord May, then GCSA. Subsequently, these have been revised and updated, but the core principles remain the same: advice should be open and transparent, take into account a wide range of expert opinion, and acknowledge uncertainties. 

In November 2009, Lord Drayson, in a move to allay concerns after Nutt’s dismissal, issued for consultation a set of Principles on Scientific Advice.  Whilst the draft Principles re-emphasise the importance of independence, openness and respect for scientific advice, some scientists have been concerned that they include:  ‘The Government and its scientific advisers should work together to reach a shared position.’  Conspiracy theorists think this is a covert way of Ministers gagging scientific advisers.  I think it is more likely to be a case of inept drafting that aimed to express the perfectly reasonable principle of ‘no surprises’. 

More important is that the Principles should affirm that adjudication on disputes relating to independent advice should be the responsibility of the Government Chief Scientific Advisor and not of Ministers.  It is the job of the GCSA, and not Ministers, to ensure that advice remains truly independent and its treatment impartial.

1 For further details, see memoranda posted on November 19 2009 on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s website

2 Hansard, 7 May 2008: see http://tinyurl.com/yfd765v 

Lord Krebs
Lord Krebs Kt FRS is Principal of Jesus College, Oxford. From 2000 to 2005 he was the first Chairman of the Food Standards Agency.
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