Page last updated at 15:53 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

'The population is with me'

By Clare Murphy
Health reporter, BBC news

Professor David Nutt
Prof Nutt has not shied away from controversy

The man at the heart of the row over the relationship between politics and science appeared relaxed and unrepentant.

Speaking at a briefing of science journalists, Professor David Nutt leant back in his chair and said his only regret was the way the government had treated him.

He stood by his most controversial comments - such as comparing the dangers of ecstasy with horse riding, as he did earlier this year to the consternation of the then home secretary Jacqui Smith.

Asked in retrospect if it was a wise comparison to have made, he thought it was indeed - and that many parents now thought twice about letting their children clamber on to a horse.

And he questioned the right of politicians to use certain words - berating Prime Minister Gordon Brown for the vocabulary he used to describe skunk, one of the most potent forms of cannabis.

"Scientists should talk about lethality," he said, "not politicians".

Inbox full

The sacking of Professor Nutt over his comments on cannabis - which contradict current classifications - has raised a string of questions about politicians' right to pick and choose which scientific advice they heed and also scientists' role as the apparent guardians of truth.

If your policy is informed by an underlying moral imperative, be open about what that is, and don't try to disguise it with a veneer of pseudo-science
Professor David Nutt

Among the scientific community there is support for Professor Nutt's conclusions that alcohol and tobacco are more damaging than cannabis or LSD, although reservations about the way he has expressed himself.

Moreover, it has been suggested that regardless of the comparative harmfulness of cannabis and alcohol, in a democracy it is down to society not scientists to decide the message it wants to send out about certain drugs.

But when it came to his criticism of current cannabis classification, "the population is with me", said Professor Nutt, pointing to a recent Mori poll.

He said that since being sacked over his remarks on alcohol, he had received numerous e-mails from the parents of children with alcohol problems commending him.

Next week, the remaining members of the body Professor Nutt chaired before his sacking - the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs - will meet the Home Secretary Alan Johnson to discuss the body's future.

Two other members of the formerly 31-strong council have already gone. Whether the remaining members stay or resign en masse after the meeting still hangs in the balance.

If it disbands, the professor has dangled the prospect of heading a new, independent advisory body - saying he has already secured the funds for just this purpose.

Problems, anyone?

Whether the body continues or collapses, Professor Nutt seems unlikely to be interested in assuming a low profile any time soon.

Scientists do have a vital role to play in providing and interpreting evidence
Sir John Bell
Academy of Medical Sciences

And whatever he goes on to do, the long-term impact of this fall-out on the relationship between the political and scientific communities is unclear.

The government's chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, has told the BBC that he will be consulting the many heads of expert committees to see if they had experienced any difficulties.

Sir John Bell, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said it was true that scientific evidence was "not necessarily the only factor that must be considered when making policy".

But he warned: "Scientists do have a vital role to play in providing and interpreting evidence.

"Much progress has been made in embedding independent scientific advice into policy and we hope that the current debate does not discourage either scientists or policymakers from making further progress."

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