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02/09/2014

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The government is set to confuse advice and governance

Imran Khan wants to keep them separate

Four decades ago a groundbreaking piece of legislation was passed by Parliament. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, amongst other measures, instituted the now infamous Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). This year we may see the progress which the Act brought about, rolled back.

The ACMD is one of many independent Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs) to government, but it hit the headlines in late 2009 when its Chair, Professor David Nutt, was summarily sacked by the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson. His alleged crime was to campaign actively against government policy. The line between that misdemeanour, and his actual job as a researching scientist who publishes and speaks on his findings, was never made clear.

Protection for scientists

The episode highlighted the ever-present tension between the public’s need to have the evidence presented clearly and impartially on the one hand, and politicians’ need to manage a narrative on the other. That tension makes it essential that scientists are protected from political interference as far as possible.

Inevitably it is politicians themselves who have to give scientists that protection. And this is what makes the original Misuse of Drugs Act all the more prescient. There are few areas where political expediency will fall as far foul of the evidence base as in drugs policy, so it all the more vital that drugs researchers are given an extra level of protection. And remarkably, that is exactly what happens; alone amongst its sister committees, the ACMD has a legal requirement for a minimum number of scientists to make up its members.

Safeguard being scrapped

The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, published late last year, is set to scrap this requirement. Rather than giving any specifications, the law would now simply read “The ACMD [...] shall be appointed by the Home Secretary after consultation with such organisations as he considers appropriate”. In effect it will mean that any future government will be able to appoint whomever they like to the ACMD, with no legal safeguards.

The relevant measures are tucked away in the 150th clause of a 156-clause piece of legislation, meaning that the opportunity for debate will be severely limited – and yet it could dramatically change the relationship between the evidence base and policy-making.

The Government’s stated reason for the changes is to ‘allow greater flexibility in the expertise [they] are able to draw on’, rather than move away from the consultation of independent scientists.  There could be some merit in the argument; the specific list of disciplines set out in the original 1971 Act may indeed be outdated. But doing away with any requirement at all seems like an overreaction, given that the original list included, for instance, a medical doctor. Could we really conceive of having an ACMD without one?

Public confidence 

The changes are probably intended entirely without malice, and could be a genuine attempt to update drugs legislation. Yet they need to be considered in the context of the relationship between science and politics. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, we should be extending the legal protection that drugs advisers enjoy to other fields of public policy, guaranteeing their independence and public confidence in scientific advice to government.

At a time when public trust in politics has reached rock bottom, we need to ensure that the boundaries between advice and governance become clearer and stronger, rather than more confused and weaker. The government looks set to do the opposite, removing the safeguards instead of improving and extending them.

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Imran Khan
Imran Khan is Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE). Find out more here: http://tinyurl.com/casejoin
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