#Nuttsack: A scandal with a positive effect

I wrote an article for Crikey today about the sacking of the UK’s chief drug adviser, David Nutt.

You can find the article here, or read it below.

#Nuttsack sparks debate about science and society
12 November 2009 Science blogger Michael Slezak writes:

A very serious affair with a very amusing hash-tag is spiralling out of control in the UK. #Nuttsack is the twitter hash-tag for the sacking of the UK’s chief drug adviser, Professor David Nutt. Although utterly scandalous, the sacking and its blowback might lead to some positive changes and to a public more engaged in debates about the relationship between science and society.

Nearly two weeks ago the chair of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Professor Nutt, was sacked by Home Secretary Alan Johnson for arguing publicly that the government’s policy on drugs was not supported by the evidence.

Soon after, two other advisers quit in protest. Yesterday, after a meeting that Johnson described as very constructive, three more drug advisers quit — leaving the ACMD paralysed, unable to meet quorum.

The underlying point of Nutt’s offending comments was that the government ignores evidence in devising its drug policy. In response, they sacked him. The irony is hard to miss. Sacking the man responsible for bringing evidence to the government for arguing that their policy is not evidence-based does nothing but prove his point.

While both sides of parliament support the sacking, it has received nearly universal condemnation from the international media and even the UK’s Minister of Science, Lord Drayson, was privately outraged by the Home Secretary’s handling of the situation.

One Guardian reader, Eric Alexander, summed up the scandal well when he sarcastically wrote “It’s not the job of the government’s scientific advisers to offer scientific advice to the government. They should be providing a rationale for government policy, the way military intelligence advisers did in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.”

The connection to other issues is clear. Another important parallel is to the climate-change debate. Do we really want our science advisers to be fearful of government reactions to their advice?

Johnson argues first that Nutt did not inform the government of his offending comments before he made them and moreover that the comments had “crossed the line” from science to policy.

The first claim appears to be false and Johnson is facing accusations of misleading parliament for making it. Nutt did, it seems, inform the government of the content of the speech. The second claim raises some interesting questions. Can a scientific adviser give advice without talking about policy? If they can, should they?

They can’t. And if they can, they shouldn’t. The ACMD is charged with the responsibility to assess the social impact of drugs as well as their physiological effects. How we are supposed to draw a line between comments regarding the social effect of a drug and comments about the effects of drug policy is anyone’s guess. They seem to be more-or-less the same issue.

In an editorial of the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Nutt compared the drug ecstasy with what he called “equasy”, or “Equine Addiction Syndrome”. He showed that according to all the criteria for measuring the harm caused by ecstacy, the habit of horse riding came out worse.

In other fora, Nutt also made the all-too-obvious point that cannabis is less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol.

Johnson’s foolish manoeuvre pushed Nutt a long way over this supposed line than he ever would have stepped on his own. In the fallout of the sacking he has published editorials in New Scientist and The Guardian and done dozens of interviews about the issues Johnson wanted him to shut-up about.

He has also vowed to set up his own independent drug advisory group so that he can continue provoking debate about drug policy. In addition, the sacking has moved bloggers, letter writers, columnists and tweeters to take part in an important debate about the role scientists ought to play in society.

As others have noted, this public debate that has ensued has been of a surprisingly high calibre. The public are engaging with complex and subtle questions with refreshing sobriety.

And this time the good guys are winning. As a result of Johnson’s trigger-happy response and the ensuing public debate, it looks like legislation, supported by Lord Drayson, might get passed saying that ministers do not have the power to sack advisers who disagree with government policy.

Some have suggested that affair is just what the drug decriminalisation movement needed. Johnson’s attempt to censor Nutt might end up ensuring that he will get even more fearless advice, and be rendered unable to keep that advice from the public.

Michael Slezak is a freelance journalist, philosophy teacher and runs the science blog Good, Bad, and Bogus.