Page last updated at 18:00 GMT, Monday, 2 November 2009

When scientists and politics mix

The relationship between scientists and politicians has been strained

A row has broken out over the relationship between scientists and the government after Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked his drugs adviser.

The dispute brings into the spotlight the role of scientific advisers, and their capacity to speak out on government policy.

Prof Nutt was removed after using a lecture to say cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.

Mr Johnson said the professor's proper role had been "to advise rather than criticise" the government on drug classification.

Colleagues of Prof Nutt say they have "serious concerns" about the decision and two fellow members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) have already resigned, with others hinting they could do the same.

'Scientific input'

The role played by scientific advisers within government is not uniform and scientists offer their expertise in varying ways.

For instance, ACMD was formed by act of parliament in 1971 to make recommendations on the control of harmful substances.

David Nutt
Prof David Nutt has warned that more ACMD members could resign

Commonly, scientific advisory committees are established by government departments to offer their expertise to ministers on issues ranging from food to road safety and the environment.

Under the government's code of practice, last updated in 2007, their members are "responsible for providing scientific input to assist policymaking or analysis" to ministers and are recruited "to help government collect scientific information and make judgements about it".

However, the code also states the task of formulating policy "is essentially one for government".

Members of scientific advisory committees are subject to the so-called Nolan principles on public life.

Whether they are remunerated or not is the responsibility of their committee's sponsoring government department, although the code states they are entitled to "fair and prompt repayment of legitimate expenses".

The Government Office for Science (GO-Science), headed by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), Prof John Beddington, is responsible for co-ordinating science and technology-related activity across Whitehall.

In addition, Prof Beddington acts as a personal adviser to the prime minister and the cabinet and many government departments also have their own chief scientific adviser.

'Carry the can'

But the relationship between scientists and politicians has become increasingly fraught.

In July, the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) committee warned science had been reduced to a political bargaining chip within government.

They can't be muzzled just because the government has decided not to accept their evidence
Prof Colin Blakemore

It complained the GO-Science has been housed in three separate departments in two years - reducing scientific and engineering advice to a peripheral policy concern.

Prophetically, the committee also criticised former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith for publicly attacking earlier comments by Prof Nutt, citing the incident as an example of the erosion of independent science advice in recent years.

It found the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had made scientific advisers sign non-disclosure agreements when they were assessing the scientific credibility of local scale climate projections produced by the UK Met Office.

The IUSS report also called for recommendations made by government science and engineering advisers to be made public - so that they could not be ignored by ministers.

However, former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Young was adamant Prof Nutt had crossed the line.

Lord Young said: "What he should have done, I believe, is if he didn't like the decision, retire - and then make his statement.

"What he shouldn't have done is to stay there and, really, argue against his minister."

But Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at Oxford University and former head of the British Medical Research Council, condemned the decision to sack Prof Nutt.

"It's ministers who carry the can and they have to decide," Prof Blakemore told the BBC's Today programme.

"But it should equally be possible for members of advisory committees who are unpaid for their work to be able to continue to explain and tell their colleagues and the public the basis of their own views, the scientific evidence.

"They can't stop publishing, they can't be muzzled just because the government has decided not to accept their evidence."

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