Page last updated at 13:42 GMT, Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Science chief backs cannabis view

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Professor Beddington would not be drawn on other aspects of the sacking

The UK government's chief science adviser has told BBC News that he supports the former chief drugs adviser's scientific view on cannabis.

Professor John Beddington, the UK's chief scientist, would not be drawn on whether the Home Secretary was wrong to sack Professor David Nutt.

David Nutt was chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

He was fired after using a lecture to say cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.

Asked whether he agreed with Professor Nutt's view that cannabis was less harmful than cigarettes and alcohol, Professor Beddington replied: "I think the scientific evidence is absolutely clear cut. I would agree with it."

This is a single instance where there has been a problem. In my two years in government there has only been an instance with the ACMD
Professor John Beddington

Professor Beddington is the man ultimately responsible for scientific advice in government.

He said that he believed that the sacking had occurred because of a breakdown in trust between Professor Nutt and the Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

"I think it's very difficult - when clearly trust had broken down between the Home Secretary and Professor Nutt - to see how that could go on," he told BBC News.

He stressed the importance placed by government on obtaining clear-cut scientific advice from experts.

He added: "I think it's fair to say we need to make a distinction between scientific advice and evidence, which is the role of experts and scientific committees, and the role of ministers, which is to make policy."

Inner workings

He said he did not believe that the incident revealed an underlying problem in the way government used scientific advice.

"There has been a lot of concern in the media that this is in some sense an undermining of the way in which government uses scientific advice. Let me put it in context: there are more than 75 scientific advisory committees," he said.

"This is a single instance where there has been a problem. In my two years in government there has only been an instance with the ACMD."

Professor Beddington said that he would urgently consult with other heads of expert committees to see if they had experienced difficulties in their role.

However, some senior scientists who advise government feel that the Nutt affair is reflective of the inner workings of providing scientific advice in Whitehall.

Many of the advisers I spoke to felt that their committees produce reports whose conclusions are inadequately reported because the publicity is tightly controlled by government press officers. These advisers did not want to be quoted.

Scientists are sometimes required to sign confidentiality agreements - a practice said to exist for commercial reasons. But critics claim the agreements can act as a legal gag on scientists who speak out on government initiatives.

"I'm going to be talking to the advisory committees, I'm going to get feedback from the chairmen. There are going to be cases where there has to be non-disclosure," Professor Beddington said.

"I want to know whether those cases are appropriate - if there is commercial confidentiality or there are sensitivities - or whether they are blanket."

He added: "If there was so many problems, we would not get the quality of scientific advice we get."

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